Matura (official term: Reifeprüfung) is the word commonly used in Austria for the final exams young adults (aged 18 or 19) take at the end of their secondary education, usually after 12 or 13 years of schooling. The Maturazeugnis, issued after a candidate has passed their final exams, is the document which contains their grades and which formally enables them to go to university (any Austrian university, as the grades themselves are irrelevant and there is no numerus clausus).
In the Gymnasium, which, as opposed to vocational schools, focuses on general education, the Matura consists of 3-4 written exams (referred to as Klausurarbeiten, 4-5 hours each) to be taken on consecutive mornings (usually in May) and 3-4 oral exams to be taken on the same half-day one month later (usually in June). All examinations are held at the school which the candidate last attended. Candidates have the option to write a scholarly paper (called Fachbereichsarbeit) to be submitted at the beginning of the February preceding the final exams, which, if it is accepted, reduces the number of exams by one (3 written, 3 oral).
The grading system is the same as the one universally used in Austrian schools: 1 (sehr gut) is excellent; 2 (gut) is good; 3 (befriedigend) is average; 4 (genügend) means that you have just passed; 5 (nicht genügend) means that you have failed. In addition, a candidate's Maturazeugnis contains a formalized overall assessment: mit ausgezeichnetem Erfolg bestanden (passed with honours), mit gutem Erfolg bestanden (not quite as good; grades ranging from 1 to 3 allowed); bestanden (a simple pass); and nicht bestanden (fail). Candidates who have failed may take their final exams again in September/October or February/March of the following schoolyear.
The most striking aspect of the Austrian Matura is that it is a decentralized affair. There are no external examiners: Candidates are set tasks both for their written and oral finals by their own (former) teachers. Formally, however, there is an examination board consisting of a candidate's teachers/examiners, the headmaster/headmistress and a Vorsitzende(r) (head), usually a high-ranking school official or the head of another school. All oral exams are public, but attendance by anyone other than a candidate's former classmates is not encouraged.
Of course it is possible for Austrians of all age groups to take the Matura. Adults from their twenties on are usually tutored at private institutions of adult education before taking their final tests, held separately before a regional examination board.
Criticism of the Austrian Matura has been persistent. In particular, it has been argued that the current system encourages rote learning (see also education reform), hinders candidates' creativity and obscures the fact that the body of knowledge is constantly changing. Various forms of alternative assessment have been proposed, most notably the portfolio as well as teamwork and peer review also in exam situations.