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In her fifth year Hermione clearly knew the Defence Against the Dark Arts textbook, upon which the theory exam was partly based, back to front.

“What is it this time, Miss Granger?”
“I’ve already read chapter two,” said Hermione.
“Well then, proceed to chapter three.”
“I’ve read that too. I’ve read the whole book.”
Professor Umbridge blinked but recovered her poise almost instantly.
“Well, then, you should be able to tell me what Slinkhard says about counterjinxes in chapter fifteen.”
“He says that counterjinxes are improperly named,” said Hermione promptly. “He says ‘counterjinx’ is just a name people give their jinxes when they want to make them sound more acceptable.”
Professor Umbridge raised her eyebrows, and Harry knew she was impressed against her will.
(Order of the Phoenix, Chapter 15, The Hogwarts High Inquisitor).

She was also a very capable witch who was incredibly talented. She excelled at performing spells from a range of different specialties, including Defence Against the Dark Arts. She'd also received specialist tuition from one of the only students who was better than her in that subject (Harry) as part of Dumbledore's Army.

Cumulatively, there are plenty of reasons why Hermione could be expected to get an Outstanding O.W.L. in Defence Against the Dark Arts. Which is why it's surprising when she only gets Exceeds Expectations.

“Hermione?” said Ginny tentatively, for Hermione still hadn’t turned around. “How did you do?”
“I - not bad,” said Hermione in a small voice.
“Oh, come off it,” said Ron, striding over to her and whipping her results out of her hand. “Yep - nine ‘Outstandings’ and one ‘Exceeds Expectations’ at Defense Against the Dark Arts.” He looked down at her, half-amused, half-exasperated. “You’re actually disappointed, aren’t you?”
(Half-Blood Prince, Chapter 5, An Excess of Phlegm).

It's especially strange that Hermione got top grades in literally every other subject.

Why didn't she get an O in Defence Against the Dark Arts?

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    Probably just to distinguish her talents from Harry's. – Radhil May 25 '17 at 18:45
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    Given Hermione's contempt for the subject matter, she probably critiqued it in her essays. Independent thinking is largely discouraged at GCSE (O.W.L.S) level. – Valorum May 25 '17 at 18:49
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    @Valorum She didn't hate the subject or DADA theory per se. She just disapproved of Umbridge's way of teaching the class without magic. – The Dark Lord May 25 '17 at 18:51
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    @TylerH Not where I'm from. I'd describe 'tuition fees' to describe any payments and 'tuition' to describe the lessons. – The Dark Lord May 25 '17 at 20:57
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    Outside of North America, the word "tuition" is more commonly used as @TheDarkLord uses it. I suspect only dictionaries of American English count this as a secondary meaning. – James McLeod May 26 '17 at 2:03
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+50

The answer is most likely the reason that Dumbledore's Army was created.

‘Parvati Patil, and isn’t there a practical bit in our Defense Against the Dark Arts OWL? Aren’t we supposed to show that we can actually do the counter-curses and things?’

‘As long as you have studied the theory hard enough, there is no reason why you should not be able to perform the spells under carefully controlled examination conditions,’ said Professor Umbridge dismissively.

‘Without ever practising them beforehand?’ said Parvati incredulously. ‘Are you telling us that the first time we’ll get to do the spells will be during our exam?’
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, chapter 12

While Hermione almost certainly got a perfect on her written exam, the fact that for the entire year they never actually practiced any of the spells in class could have still affected her grade. While Harry was teaching them different defensive tactics in the Dumbledore's Army, he was teaching them very practical spells, that may or may not have actually been the spells they would cover in year 5. Especially since he was doing both basic spells such as disarming, as well as N.E.W.T. level spells such as patronus charms.

Hermione also historically has done poorly on defense against the dark arts practicals.

Hermione did everything perfectly until she reached the trunk with the Boggart in it. After about a minute inside it, she burst out again, screaming.

‘Hermione!’ said Lupin, startled. ‘What’s the matter?’

‘P-P-Professor McGonagall!’ Hermione gasped, pointing into the trunk. ‘Sh-she said I’d failed everything!’ It took a little while to calm Hermione down.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, chapter 16

Hermione even admits that Harry is better at Defence against the Dark Arts:

‘Harry, you’re the best in the year at Defence Against the Dark Arts,’ said Hermione.

‘Me?’ said Harry, now grinning more broadly than ever. ‘No I’m not, you’ve beaten me in every test –’

‘Actually, I haven’t,’ said Hermione coolly. ‘You beat me in our third year – the only year we both sat the test and had a teacher who actually knew the subject. But I’m not talking about test results, Harry. Look what you’ve done!’ Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, chapter 15

Otherwise, like Radhil said, it was probably Rowling's decision to make it apparent that Harry is the best at Defense against the Dark Arts.

  • 4
    Apart from the Patronus charm and the Boggart example you cite I can't actually think of a time when Hermione struggled with DADA magic, though. She was hardly a poor student. – The Dark Lord May 25 '17 at 18:53
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    @TheDarkLord Yeah but an Exceeds Expectations is hardly a poor grade. And since the boundaries are absolute, for all we know, she was one mark off an O – Au101 May 25 '17 at 19:31
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    There's probably also a storytelling need here as well. If you have a character who is the best at everything, then why is one of her best friends the primary protagonist that everybody looks up to? – Ellesedil May 26 '17 at 17:35
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    @Ellesedil: Note that Hermione having a O in DADA does not make her best at everything, it makes her one of the best at everything. This is not a necessarily competitive exam or a ranking, and therefore multiple students may possibly achieve a O. Two distinct students achieving O does not mean that one is not miles ahead of the other. – Matthieu M. May 26 '17 at 17:43
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    @MatthieuM. your right, but now were thinking like an adult, and not the target teen/preteen market the book was written for, in which the noticeable difference is score is a clear indicator at harrys superiority in this field – Himarm May 26 '17 at 17:46
9

Just to elaborate a bit on the points offered in @Himarm's answer: In the chapter in OOTP (Book 5) that describes the OWL exams, we (the readers) really only get direct information about Harry's performance in the DADA exam. We learn that he can handle both the written and the practical questions with ease. In particular, he gets to demonstrate his complete mastery of the Patronus charm -- a NEWT-level subject -- in front of the examiners. It seems natural that such a performance would receive an "O" grade.

The readers aren't given any comparable information about Hermione's performance during the DADA exam. We can be pretty sure, though, that she didn't come up short in the written portion of the exam. We are left to conclude that one or more aspects of her performance during the practical portion of the exam were not as accomplished as Harry's. Unfortunately, we simply don't have any specific information as to which parts of the practical exam went over in a less than absolutely stellar fashion.

1

I recall no description of Hermione's successes or failures during the actual exam, whereas at least on Book 3 Hermione specifically mentioned failing against a Boggart in her exam. It's in her character to worry aloud about anything she might've got incorrectly, so during the owls we could assume she didn't have too many complaints regarding the exam itself. Why, then, only an Exceed Expectations among all the numerous Outstanding owls?

Well, most likely Hermione was only given an E merely to make the point to readers that Harry is THE best of the year in Defense Against the Dark Arts. I always had an issue with this, since Hermione was always shown at the very least very capable in the subject, and if she only got an E most likely everyone else in Harry's year should've received E or lesser marks, leaving Harry the only one to receive an Outstanding. It just felt artificial and slightly unnecessary, since the point of Harry's superior command in this field had already been made elsewhere and Hermione receiving an O wouldn't have, in my opinion, diminished Harry's glory at all.

Then again, it didn't make any sense either that both Harry and Ron managed Exceed Expectations in Potions, but it was necessary for the plot to unfold as it did.

1

My assumption has always been (since this question always bothered me), that the O.W.L.'s must be percentile based. Instead of A, B, C based on your percentage of questions answered correctly, they are based on what percentile student you are.

In this case (These numbers are completely arbitrary, just meaning to be an example):

O: >1%

E: >15%

A: >50%

P: >80%

D: <10%

T: <5%

Since there are few students per year, the top 1% would literally be the single best student of that year in that subject. This is why it is an accomplishment often flaunted in the books. "Dumbledore, best in his year got 12 Outstandings in his N.E.W.T.'s.

OOTP (going to paraphrase): "Dawlish, I know you got 7 Outstandings in your NEWT's, but if you try to disarm me, I will be forced to hurt you."

Furthermore, Ron says in book 6: "Knew you'd be top at Defense against the Dark Arts, mate!"

This would also explain why Harry is not given a Poor in Astronomy, despite only turning in 1/3rd of the test. He may have completed very little of it, but so did everyone else. Although, we could just assume his written portion went well enough to carry his bad practical.

Worth noting, this is how in America, standardized tests are run. The ACT is 0-36 score based on how well you did in comparison to others. SAT is similar, though the scale is 0-900 (or something). And both are somewhat comparable tests as you take either the SAT or the ACT to have a baseline for what college you can get into.

Side Note: the only Exception I remember from the books to this idea would be that both Hermione and Neville get an Outstanding O.W.L. in Herbology, but it may just be that the top 1% is actually two people not just one, so maybe another 5th year beat Hermione as well in D.A.D.A. It makes somewhat more sense than her not getting 90% on a test.

  • 1
    Assuming that OWLs are graded on a curve, I would think that, in the case of tie scores, those students would all receive the same grade. If the entire class aces potion making or they all receive 33%, then they all get outstanding. I can't see any other way of grading it. Of course, this would be evidence of something seriously wrong in either the curriculum or the exam (probably both). – Ellesedil May 26 '17 at 17:39
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    Isn't the last one supposed to be T? – Joshua May 27 '17 at 1:17
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    Snape required O's for his Potions classes in year 6, something that wouldn't really make sense if only 1-2 students per year would ever achieve that score. Snape also says something about twelve people reaching the required level, and that is considered a low number (meaning more than twelve people would normally be expected to get O's in other classes). My memory is hazy and I don't have the books to hand. – MPF May 28 '17 at 4:42
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    Where are you getting these numbers from? – The Dark Lord May 28 '17 at 16:11
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    @TheDarkLord My numbers are completely arbitrary. It was to promote the idea, not to be concrete. I should have clarified more. – EvSunWoodard May 30 '17 at 14:38

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