Baccalauréat

Baccalauréat

The baccalauréat often known in France colloquially as le bac or le bachôt, is an academic qualification which French and international students sit at the end of the lycée (secondary or high school). It was invented under Napoleon I in 1808. It is the main diploma required to pursue university studies.

Overview

Much like British A-Levels or American high school diplomas, the baccalauréat allows French and international students to obtain a standardised qualification, typically at the age of 18. This then qualifies holders to work in certain areas, or go on to tertiary education or acquire some other professional qualification or training.

Just about all students in their final year of secondary school take the exam. However the French baccalauréat is legally an academic qualifying degree. In theory, the students in lycée could choose not to sit for the baccalauréat at the end of the lycée, as it is by law an exam to qualify students for entrance into university. Unlike some US high school diplomas, it is not a lycée completion exam.

The word bac is also used to refer to one of the end-of-year exams that students must pass in order to get their baccalauréat diploma: le bac de philo, for example, is the philosophy exam (which all students must take, regardless of their field of study).

Within France, there are three main types of baccalauréat degrees:

  • the baccalauréat général (general baccalaureate);
  • the baccalauréat professionnel (professional baccalaureate);
  • the baccalauréat technologique (technological baccalaureate).

Each of these categories encompasses several somewhat specialized curricula.

For entrance to regular universities within France, however, there are some restrictions as to the type of baccalauréat that can be presented. In some cases, it may be possible to enter a French university without the bac by taking a special exam, the diploma for entrance to higher education.

Though most students take the bac at the end of secondary school, it is also possible to enter as a candidat libre (literally, "free candidate") without affiliation to a school. Students who did not take the bac upon completion of secondary school (or did not manage to pass it) and would like to attend university, or feel that the bac would help them accomplish professional aspirations, may exercise this option. The exam is no different from the one administered to secondary-school students, except that free candidates are tested in Physical Education, whereas students' Physical Education grade is calculated based on evaluation throughout the year.

Baccalauréat général streams

Students who sit for the baccalauréat général choose one of three streams (termed séries) in the penultimate lycée year. . Each stream results in a specialization and carries different weights (coefficients) associated with each subject. The description below does not take into account the streams still used in French DOMs-TOMs which further divides the different séries. For instance, under the most widely used form everywhere except in metropolitan France, the bac S would be C or D, the bac ES would be B and the bac L would be A1 or A2. The streams for the baccalauréat général are as follows:

S
scientifique
(sciences)
ES
sciences économiques et sociales
(economics and social sciences)
L
littéraire
(literature)
The natural sciences stream requires a high level in mathematics, physics & chemistry, and biology. The bac ES is balanced between literary and scientific courses of studies, and students must take an economics and social sciences exam. The bac L weighs French literature, philosophy, history & geography, and foreign languages heavily.

The baccalauréat permits students to choose to sit for exams in over forty world languages or French regional languages (such as Alsatian, Arpitan, Basque, Breton, Corsican, Créole, Norman, Occitan, Picard, Roussillonais Catalan...).

It has typically been seen as more prestigious to choose the "bac S", as it is said to open more doors as more numerate. This in turn can offer a greater range of post-graduation opportunities. This bias is inherent to the French educational system as many of the more prestigious "Classes Preparatoires" (post bac specialised classes for entry into the Grandes Écoles) require the S series. However this hegemony may sometimes be contested by teachers from the other two general streams of study, ES and L.

Content

Série scientifique (S)

The S stream prepares students for work in scientific fields such as medicine, engineering and the natural sciences. Natural sciences students must specialize in either Mathematics, Physics & Chemistry or Earth & Life Sciences.

Subjects Weight Format of exam Duration
Anticipated subjects1
French Language 2 Written 4 hours
French Language 2 Oral 20 minutes
Travaux personnels encadrés (TPE) Oral ten minutes by pupil (TPE is an exam prepared by groups of 3 pupils generally)
Terminale subjects
Mathematics 7 or 9 Written 4 hours
Physics & Chemistry 6 or 8 Written and Laboratory 3 ½ hours plus 1 hour
Earth & Life Sciences


Engineering Sciences


Biology-Ecology
6 or 8


4 + 5


5 + 2
Written and Laboratory


Written and Laboratory


Written and Laboratory
3 ½ hours plus 1 hour

8 hours (1 hour for electronic, 1 hour for mechanic, 4 hours for particle works and 2 hours for TPE or PPE)

3 ½ hours plus 1 ½ hour
History & Geography 3 Written 4 hours
First Foreign Language (LV1) 3 Written 3 hours
Second Foreign Language (LV2) or Regional Language (LVR) 2 Written 2 hours
Philosophy 3 Written 4 hours
Physical Education 2 Year-end Average
Specializations
Mathematics or Physics & Chemistry or Earth & Life Sciences Oral or Laboratory (except for Mathematics) 1 hour
Supplementary Physical Education 2 Year-end Average
Optional Subjects4
Foreign Language Oral or Written (depending on the language) 20 minutes or 2 hours
Regional Language Oral 20 minutes
Latin Oral 15 minutes
Ancient Greek Oral 15 minutes
Physical Education Year-end Average or Examination
Arts Oral 30-40 minutes
1Exam at the end of première. French is replaced by Philosophy in terminale.
²Added to general subject above.
³Only points above 10 out of 20 (50%) are taken into consideration. Multiplied by two for first subject (except Latin & Greek, where the multiplier is three) and by one for the second subject.
4Two-subject maximum.

Série économique et sociale (ES)

Students in the ES stream prepare for careers in the social sciences, in management and business administration, and in economics. The subject Economics & Social Sciences is the most heavily weighed and is only offered in this stream. History & Geography and Mathematics are also important subjects in ES.

Subjects Weight Format of exam Duration
Anticipated subjects1
French Language 2 Written 4 hours
French Language 2 Oral 20 minutes
Natural Sciences 2 Written 1h30
Travaux personnels encadrés (TPE) Oral ten minutes by pupil (TPE is an exam prepared by groups of 3 pupils generally)
Terminale subjects
History & Geography 5 Written 4 hours
Mathematics 5 or 7 Written 3 hours
Economics & Social Sciences 7 or 9 Written 4 hours²
First Foreign Language (LV1) 3 Written 3 hours
Second Foreign Language (LV2) or Regional Language (LVR) 3 Oral 20-30 minutes
Philosophy 4 Written 4 hours
Physical Education 2 Year-end Average
Specializations
Economics & Social Sciences or Mathematics or LV1/LVR Written or Oral 1 hour or 20 minutes
Supplementary Physical Education 2 Year-end Average
Optional Subjects5
Foreign Language 24 Oral or Written (depending on the language) 20 minutes or 2 hours
Regional Language Oral 20 minutes
Latin Oral 15 minutes
Ancient Greek Oral 15 minutes
Physical Education Year-end Average or Examination
Arts Oral 30-40 minutes
1Exams at the end of première. French is replaced by Philosophy in terminale.
²The exam is 5-hours long for students in this specialization.
³Added to general subject above.
4Only points above 10 out of 20 (50%) are taken into consideration. Multiplied by two for first subject (except Latin & Greek, where the multiplier is three) and by one for the second subject.
5Two-subject maximum.

Série littéraire (L)

Students in the L stream prepare for careers in the humanities such as education, linguistics, and public service. They also have interests in the arts. The most important subjects in the literary stream are Philosophy and French language & literature and other languages, usually English, German and Spanish.

Subjects Weight Format of exam Duration
Anticipated subjects1
French Language & Literature 3 Written 4 hours
French Language & Literature 2 Oral 20 minutes
Natural Sciences 2 Written 1 ½ hours
Mathematics & Computer Science 2 Written 1 ½ hours
Travaux personnels encadrés (TPE) Oral ten minutes by pupil (TPE is an exam prepared by groups of 3 pupils generally)
Terminale subjects
Philosophy 7 Written 4 hours
Literature 4 Written 4 hours
History & Geography 4 Written 4 hours
First Foreign Language (LV1) 4 Written 3 hours
Second Foreign Language (LV2) or Regional Language (LVR) 4 Written 3 hours
Physical Education 2 Year-end Average
Specializations
Latin or Ancient Greek 4 Written 3 hours
Mathematics 3 Written 3 hours
Arts & Crafts or Cinema & Audiovisual Studies or Art History or Music or Theatre & Dramatic Expression or Dance 6 Written and Oral 3 ½ hours and ½-hour
Supplementary Physical Education 2 Year-end Average
Optional Subjects³
Foreign Language Oral or Written (depending on the language) 20 minutes or 2 hours
Regional Language Oral 20 minutes
Latin Oral 15 minutes
Ancient Greek Oral 15 minutes
Physical Education Year-end Average or Examination
Arts Oral 30-40 minutes
1Exams at the end of première. French is replaced by Philosophy and Literature in terminale.
²Only points above 10 out of 20 (50%) are taken into consideration. Multiplied by two for first subject (except Latin & Greek, where the multiplier is three) and by one for the second subject.
³Two-subject maximum.
Note: The tables in this section were adapted from the French Ministry of Education website

Format

The majority of the baccalauréat examination takes place in a week in June. For lycée students, this is the end of the last year, terminale. This is a very stressful period for students and preparation starts early in the school year, sometimes even a few years beforehand.

Most examinations are given in essay-form. The student is given a substantial block of time (depending on the exam, from two to four hours) to complete a multiple-page, well-argued paper. The number of pages filled-out varies from exam to exam but is usually substantial considering all answers have to be written down, explained and justified. Mathematics and science exams are problem sets but some science questions also require an essay-type answer. All foreign language exams include a short translation section as well. Although multiple-choice exams (questionnaire à choix multiples) do exist in the French educational system, they do not appear for the baccalauréat (except in mathematics where they occasionally appear but often require justification).

Some students also have the opportunity to work on a research project called the travaux personnels encadrés or TPE. These are generally conducted in groups of 2 or 3 and focus on a subject determined by the students under supervision of a faculty member.

When taken in mainland France, the baccalauréat material is the same for all students in a given stream. Secrecy surrounding the material is very tight and the envelopes containing the exams are unsealed by a high-ranking school officer (usually a principal or vice-principal) in front of the examinees only a few minutes prior to the start of the examination. The procedure is the same for each subject, in each stream. Students usually have an identification number and an assigned seat. The number is written on all exam material and the name is hidden by folding and sealing the upper right corner of the examination sheet(s). In this fashion, anonymity is respected. The correcting staff is usually a member of the teaching staff in the same district or, at a larger scale, in the same académie. To avoid conflicts of interests, a teacher who has lectured to a student or group of students cannot grade their exam. Also, to ensure greater objectivity on the part of the examiners, the test is anonymous. The grader sees only an exam paper with a serial number, with all personally identifying material stripped away and forbidden from appearing, thus curbing any favoritism based upon sex, religion, national origin, or ethnicity.

Unlike the English GCSEs, Scottish Standard Grades or the American SAT, the French baccalauréat is not a completely standardized test. Since most answers — even for biology questions — are given in essay form, there is only room for subjectivity in subjects such as philosophy and French literature.

Students generally take the French language and literature exam at the end of première, due to the fact that this subject is not taught in terminale (where it is replaced with a philosophy course). It also has an oral examination component, along with the written part. The oral exam covers works studied throughout première.

Weight system

Each baccalauréat stream has its own set of subjects that each carry a different weight (coefficient). This allows some subjects to be more important than others. For example, in the ES stream Economics & Social Science carry more weight than the Natural Sciences. Therefore the former is more important than the latter. Students usually study more for exams that carry heavier weights since the grade they obtain in these exams may have a bigger impact on their mean grade. It is in the calculation of this mean that passing the bac and eventual honours are determined.

Variations on the general baccalauréat

The general baccalauréat offers several additional variants. The best known subset is the "option internationale du baccalauréat", the OIB. This is sometimes confusingly translated as the "French international baccalaureat". However it is in no way related to the International Baccalaureate (IB).

The OIB adds further subjects the French national exam. Students choose one of the L, ES or S streams. It differs as students take a two year syllabus in literature, history and geography in a foreign language. This syllabus and the way it is examined is modelled on the national exam of the target nation. For instance, the British Section (administered by the University of Cambridge) models the programmes on A levels in English, History and Geography. It is therefore necessary to be fully bilingual to complete this degree.

At the end of the "Terminale", OIB students have extra exams in Literature and History/Geography. These exams have a high weight in the final mark of the bac and they do not give extra points to the OIB students. Overall, these students work much more than the other general baccalauréat students and many of them tend to go to foreign universities.

Passing & honours

The pass mark is 10 out of 20. The 2007-2008 success rate for the baccalauréat in mainland France was 83.3%.

For the baccalauréat four levels of honours are given:

  • A mark between 10 and 11,99 will earn a student a mention passable (enough to pass...)
  • A mark between 12 and 13,99 will earn a mention assez bien (honours);
  • A mark between 14 and 15,99 will earn a mention bien (high honours);
  • A mark of 16 or higher will earn a mention of très bien (highest honours).

Exceptional marks (usually above 18/20) can be rewarded by the unofficial félicitations du jury (jury's congratulations). There are no fixed criteria for obtaining this accolade; it is rewarded at marking panel's discretion.

Honours are prestigious but not crucial, as admissions to the classes préparatoires (or Preparatory classes) (that prepare to grande école exams) are decided months before the exam.

French educators seldom use the entire grading scale. The same applies when marking the baccalauréat. Therefore it is practically impossible to get a perfect score of 20 out of 20 (but possible to get more than this perfect score, thanks to options). It is also very rare to see scores lower than 3 (which is much less than required for a supplemental examination anyway). In the 2007-2008 school year, according to

Supplemental examination

If a student averages between 8 and 10, he or she is permitted to sit for the épreuve de rattrapage (also called the second groupe), a supplemental oral exam given in two subjects of the student's choice. If the student does well enough in these orals to raise the overall, weighed grade to a 10, then he or she receives his or her baccalauréat. If the student does poorly in the orals and receives below an 8, he or she may choose to repeat the final year of lycée (terminale).

The student cannot choose to re-sit the entire examination in September, as the September exams may only be taken by those who have not been able to take the June exams for serious reasons (such as illness).

Receiving the baccalauréat in the United States

There are a small number of schools which prepare students for the baccalauréat in the United States. Otherwise, it is possible to prepare the baccalauréat with the CNED a French public institution under the oversight of the department of education dedicated to providing distance learning material. It can, of course, only be taken after completion of the necessary coursework, which is entirely in French. Upon receiving the baccalauréat, students wishing to pursue post-secondary studies in the US generally will present their degrees to the university's chancellor, or head of registrar. If it is decided that the coursework merits credits, they will generally be assigned according to what stream the student has taken.

See also

Compare

Note

  1. The formula was taken from the Lycée Claudel website, a French lycée in Ottawa, Canada and might only be accurate for Canadian -- and even Ontarian -- percentage grades. In Ontario an 80% grade is an "A" on the American Scale and the student is awarded an Ontario Scholar Diploma. A 90% grade is an A+ on the American Scale is considered a grade with honours and automatically qualifies the student for government funded scholarships and bursuries. The formula should be used for comparison only.

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