Language test policy for students needs clarity

June 23, 2023 - 10:10
Changes in policy are more than welcome, but they need a pathway and concrete feasibility.
Illustration by Trịnh Lập

by Nguyễn Mỹ Hà

High school students taking the final tests to graduate from the national high school system were given a shock on June 9 when they were told that any results in foreign language tests (including English, Russian, French, German, Chinese, and Japanese) that had been taken last autumn would not count to their overall high school scores as in previous years.

Fortunately, in a quick reply to the community response, the Ministry of Education and Trainingrescinded its decision less than a week later. International language tests that are still valid by June 27, including those taken last autumn, can be counted towards the upcoming national high school graduation exams.

Initially, they were told of the cancellation just two weeks before their finals and not given any explanation as to why language exams taken during that time were to be discounted. But it was understood that the legality of the exams during that period was questionable as most units organising such exams had not completed procedures for licences to do so from the Ministry of Education and Training.

"If the ministry decides to change policy," complained one parent, "it should give parents and students, and even teachers appropriate time to adjust. It's not a matter of life or death to make such a sudden change in policy and shock everyone involved."

A high school maths teacher with a wealth of international experience took to his social media account to give his opinion.

"If you don't study maths, physics, chemistry and biology, then how is our country going to be built up?" said Đặng Minh Tuấn, a teacher who used to teach at Hà Nội-Amsterdam High School for the Gifted in Hà Nội, wrote in an eloquent essay.

"English is really necessary and important, but it is just a tool, no country in the world places studying a foreign language at the centre of education."

But he may have mistaken the initial purpose of waiving the English tests, a decision made to relieve students from the pressure, and so parents do not have to pay extra fees for classes outside school hours.

As an open economy and as one of the countries with the widest internet access, today's young students, including primary school students who studied English from kindergarten, can speak fluent English by the end of junior high school (grade 9.)

Recently, at the Marie Curie School in Hà Nội, the principal even announced prize money of VNĐ5 million to any students who scored an IELTS 8. But taking such tests early is a waste of time and money as the test results are valid for only two years, and you only need to take the test when you need it.

In most public schools, teachers may not speak as well as their students. But they have a secret weapon that's called "grammar" so can fail any students who did not study their way, despite relative fluency. A common saying is "They could be scoring 5 or 6 in IELTS tests, but their grammar is weak."

Some of this grammar is very technical rules, developed to be so complicated that even 8-scorers might be marked wrong for tricky questions. This is examining by technicality not talent, but if you want to pass the test and graduate, you need to know the rules of the game and play along.

IELTS tests evaluate students on four skills: reading, listening, writing and speaking, so will give a better perspective for students being tested.

It is true that in a country like Việt Nam, English proficiency can open many doors for the students, who want to study abroad, or later work overseas or in international companies, which have come here to do business. It is undeniable that English is vital for anyone wishing to do business these days.

"My job used to require that I speak some French and fluent English," said Nguyễn Thị Thanh who works for a French company in Hà Nội.

"It all went well until recently, we got many Chinese customers, who could not and would not speak English. I'm off to study Chinese in my spare time to speak to our customers."

In reply to the maths teacher's concerns, other students also took the opportunity to add to the vital list of subjects that should be the backbone of our education system.

"As a science teacher, he was right," a college student at Hà Nội-based National University told Việt Nam News.

"But what about other social sciences subjects? What about arts education and physical training? We need as many great social science researchers as well as singers, musicians and artists, and footballers, tennis players and athletes."

As the economy evolves around market demands, the country's education policymakers need to be consistent on what vital knowledge and social skills a high school graduate must possess. But they also need to foresee the future flows of the market to steer students so that they will be able to adapt to new changes.

Changes in policy are more than welcome, but they need a pathway and concrete feasibility, not just an announcement coming from atop that shakes every education department in the country.

Despite all the hand-wringing, there's one notable exception that should give everybody food for thought.

The Bình Dương education authority has decided not to carry out the provincial high school tests at all. Instead, they will do their assessments based on the scores of students over 12 years of study. How's that for grown-up policy? VNS