May 29, 2014

20/20 Revision: Saint Vincent


When my daughters come home with a very rare 20/20 on a test or assignment, I think of it as 100%. And that's a fine comparison, but it stops there. Because when they come back with a 19/20, it is not the same as a 95%, and when they come back with a 10/20, it is not a 50% failing grade, either.

Throughout France, at all levels of schooling, a perfect grade starts at 20. For each mistake made, a point is taken off. At the teacher's discretion, minor errors (such as a forgotten accent on a word) might only merit half of a point deduction. Major errors might be 1-2 points. So a 14.5 on my daughter's test means that she has made roughly 6-10 errors, and it might be well above average, despite the fact that it looks like a C-. And in case you're wondering, the circled words are not errors, but rather conjugated verbs.

But it gets more complicated than that. One of Gigi's recent tests has two parts: 5 points of grammar questions and 15 points of the dreaded dictée (dictation -- so hard in French). Gigi gets 4 points out of 5 for the grammar section. So far, so good. Then she makes about a dozen errors (mostly small, in my mind, out of a whole page of writing) that brings her dictée score down to a big, fat zero. Final result: 13 mistakes for a score of 4/20. Other children make, for example, 30 mistakes on their dictée and still get a zero for that section, but get all 5 points for the grammar. Final result: 30 mistakes for a score of 5/20. I know, I know. If you -- like me -- are a) not French b) distressed by injustice c) competitive about education and d) a hot-head, you will start sputtering "But that's not fair!" And it's not. But there's no fighting it, because this is France, and that's the way grading has always been done.

By American standards, it's somewhat infuriating. In my mind, if she has done her work 95% correctly, she should get a 95% or an A. But here, the 5% she got wrong might easily bring it down to a 5/20 -- or worse. Once in a while, they can correct mistakes and earn back some points, though never to the point of getting a 20/20, which is virtually unattainable.

Another point to remember is that the grade here, in and of itself, doesn't tell you much. A student could have a 13/20 average....and be the valedictorian. It all has to do with the class average, and whether you fall below or above that. You can imagine how fun it is for French kids to apply to American universities and try to explain their transcripts.

The grading is, at least, somewhat straight-forward in math class (though even here, you can have the right answer but get points off for not showing the work in the perfectly correct format). But in subjective classes, it's doubly frustrating. Recently, Gigi gets a 14.5 for an oral report she thought she had nailed. When she asks the teacher why she received a score lower than the class average, she is told, "I just didn't like it as much as some of the others." [Insert image of me tearing my hear out.]

We have a new tradition when the girls bring home French dictées with bad grades, especially the surprise dictées that they can't prepare for. I look at their papers and almost always burst out laughing. This may not send the right message to the girls, but at least they're not stressed out. It's just that some of these 4/20 exams look like A- or B+ work in the US, and I consider that not-too-shabby for non-French kids, in French class, in France.

Gigi comes home one day in elementary school and informs me very excitedly that the class clown got a 3 on a test. The teacher was so proud of him, she gave him a candy reward. She tells me the whole class was excited for him when the scores were read out, because he normally gets a zero. I know: This introduces a few new concepts. Yes, final scores can get down to zero. No matter how many things he gets right, he gets enough wrong to get down to nothing, and he's not the only one. Grades in the single digits are not at all uncommon.

The other thing about this that is very foreign, of course, is the reading out of scores. This would be so taboo in the US, but here it's just par for the course. Most of the time, the children know what the other children have received as grades.

THE CHEESE: Saint Vincent

Made in Touraine, this is clearly a rip-off of a Saint Maure, which is already a rip off of Saint Maure de Touraine. Having said that, if they're going to make the cheese, and they're not allowed to call it one or the other because of AOC and other rules, then I guess it's not, technically, a Saint Maure of any sort. It's a Saint Vincent, an industrial, mass-produced, supermarket raw goat's milk cheese log that beats most American supermarket cheese hands down.

It's hand-rolled in ash (so they claim. Really?!) and has a nice, creamy, thick texture. The taste is mellow -- very mildly goaty with a slight lemony tang.


When spoken aloud, the numbers 20 (as in the French system's 20 out of 20) and 100 (as in the American system's 100%) -- "vingt" and "cent" -- are pronounced exactly like the word "Vincent". How do I rate that connection? Maybe 14/20. And how do I rate the cheese itself? I give it a 9/20. And what does this tell you? Absolutely nothing, unless you know the average ratings for the other cheeses and connections.


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