July has been an eventful month for the northern mountainous province of Hà Giang. First, the historic flood that wreaked havoc on the province. People went missing, houses were destroyed and bridges collapsed in the wake of nature’s fury. But it did little to stop the proud and determined people of the mountains to bring their children to the national high school exam.
TV footage of Hà Giang’s students and their parents braving the waters made a fine example of dedication and the strength of human spirit in the face of adversity. The country looked north with sympathy and admiration. Fast forward half a month and the province now finds itself at the centre of a national scandal, with the results of more than a hundred students adjusted favourably. How did they get there?
Simply put, the national high school exam is a big deal. In 2015, the country implemented a 2-in-1 exam model in which a student’s national high school exam results were to be used as major criteria for university and college admission. It could be compared to the French Baccalauréat or the US’s SAT and may decide a student’s future. There is so much at stake that despite the roaring currents and pouring rains, parents and students were determined to make it to the test centres.
The difference here is while students in France and the US want to well in their tests, universities and colleagues are not their only options. For Vietnamese students, the alternatives to traditional higher education such as occupational training often seem much less desirable. Historical and cultural values that favour individuals who are university and college educated aside, the quality and practicality of such training leaves much to be desired.
Such factors turn the national exam into this gigantic hurdle that overwhelms students and their parents with pressure to do well. At its best, the gravity of the situation encourages students to work hard, to put 110 per cent into their efforts. At its worst, people find ways to cheat.
An examiner at the provincial education department was implicated during an on-going investigation, which was launched after red flags were raised due to the abnormally high marks Hà Giang students attained. They scored so well as to even outperform big cities such as Hà Nội and HCM City, which traditionally lead the national rankings.
The examiner confessed to the crime and claimed he was working alone. Given the complexity of such a task and the security system in place, it is most curious, to say the least, that he was able to manage such a feat without the help of an accomplice or two. The investigation team revealed they found text messages with a series of students’ ID number, whose results were later modified, on the examiner’s phones. A fair guess is some parents were trying to pull strings and get their children a head-start in life. But what influence did those parents hold to compel the examiner to commit such a crime? Those are questions perhaps best left to the investigation team to answer.
The question we should be asking ourselves is what example are we showing the children? Upon review, several students’ marks were found to be so heavily altered as to go from barely passable to almost perfect. While cheating is not uncommon during examinations, never before has an example of recklessness and severity came out on a national level.
Many renowned educators believe the goal of education is the attainment of knowledge and character. While the students who marks were altered were not to blame, it would be difficult to imagine this incident will not impact their outlook of the world. From a character growth point of view, it is perhaps beneficial for them to fail here and there than to have a good result handed to them in a dishonourable way.
This cheating incident has to be looked upon in the most serious lights. This is not to be confused with petty cheating with hidden notes or markings on calculators. This is systematic, organised and quite possibly commercially-oriented cheating. This is cheating done by adults and sadly by one of those who is responsible for ensuring a fair and open examination.
The public outcry that followed was understandable, for it is not simply a matter of a hundred students having free passes to the universities and colleges of their choices. It means a hundred other students, who were honest and hard-working, would lose the chance to study what they love had the cheating not been discovered.
It was most encouraging sign when Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc gave the order for the Ministry of Public Security to run the investigation into the cheating incident in Hà Giang. Earlier yesterday, signs of violations were also found on national high school exams in provinces of Sơn La and Lạng Sơn and formal investigations into them look likely.
It would seem for the first time the Government is willing to open this can of worms. While more Hà Giang-like scandals are likely to be revealed, this is the first step to address cheating and hopefully, it will bring about a level playing field for all Vietnamese students. — VNS