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To relieve test anxiety, look beyond university

Update: July, 05/2018 - 10:56
Illustration by Đàm Minh Chí
Viet Nam News

Bảo Hoa

June 25, 2018 will become an unforgettable day in the life of thousands of students in Việt Nam. No, not because it’s the ninth anniversary of the death of the King of Pop Michael Jackson, but because it’s the day that they encountered the math test to decide their future.

More than 920,000 high school students in Việt Nam sat their university entrance exam last week from June 25 to June 27. They took three compulsory tests – math, literature and foreign language – and either a natural science test (including physics, chemistry, biology) or a social science test (including history, geography and citizen education), depending on their preferences.

Ever since, students, parents, teachers and math professors have had their heads spinning over the math test, a 50-question multiple choice test deemed “too difficult” for high school students to finish in 90 minutes. Although for most students their final results will be the combination of their scores in the four tests, many students fear they might fail the exam because of the math test.

“The first twenty questions were super easy, but then it got harder and harder,” said Nguyễn Đức Anh in Hà Nội.

“I had only finished the 41st or 42nd question when time was almost up. I chose random answers for remaining questions in the last five minutes of the test,” he said.

The test was as unreasonable as it was difficult, according to several students and math teachers, since the difficult questions – which were aimed to “classify students” – all had the same level of difficulty.

Quách Gia Huy in Hà Nội said: “They were all difficult. The last 20 questions had the same level of difficulty. To which we all chose random answers. I don’t think the test helped to classify students. Only the lucky ones might get high scores.”

Dr Trần Nam Dũng, a lecturer at the Department of Mathematics – Informatics at the Việt Nam National University, HCM City, said some questions were extremely difficult and required 15-20 minutes to solve.

“If it takes about two minutes to solve an average question, then such a difficult question takes away from students the time to solve eight to nine average ones,” he told VnExpress.net.

The test might not serve the stated purpose of classifying students because a lot of above average students also chose random answers for the difficult questions, he said.   

Personally, I think it is important to have tests that help discern those with high intellectual capacity from those without, especially at the university level, because higher education requires a higher level of thinking that not all people can meet.

This is not to say that I devalue manual labour and vocational training. On the contrary, I think vocational and on-the-job training equips young people with more hard skills than sitting in a lecture hall and reading books. More soft skills and people skills, even.

Unfortunately, in Việt Nam there is still a social stigma against not having a university degree, especially among parents. A parent whose child just took the university entrance exam said to me: “If he fails, I would ‘lobby’ someone to get him into some random university.”

“I don’t believe in vocational training and continuous education, all that kind of stuff,” she said.

It was the same for my sister three years ago when she was about to graduate from high school. Back then she really wanted to take a gap year before going to university. She was passionate about making pastries, she was good at it and she was thinking of getting a job at a culinary centre or restaurant to learn the skills.

But all of those plans came to a halt when my dad said to her: “Get a college degree first, then I will let you do whatever you want.”

It will take a lot in Việt Nam in order for the university degree not to be thought of as some kind of life insurance, and I think it requires a change of mindset and courage from different members of society.

Not only parents, but employers should stop making the university degree a requirement for good job posts at their companies. I know some international organisations don’t care whether their employees hold any degrees, but that’s not the case at the majority of Vietnamese enterprises.

Mika, a singer I like, dropped out of the Royal College of Music in the UK when he struck a recording deal with Casablanca Records. He then proceeded to have a rather successful recording career, and went on to be a judge of The Voice television series in France.

I don’t think we should all be dropping out of college once we have got in – we cannot have so many Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerbergs. But we do need employers that look beyond the college degree in order for our students not to be pressured into going to college, and for parents not to be pressured into forcing their children to attend because they think a degree is a requirement for a good career.

It’s a long shot. But I’m all for a society in which each individual can harness their own strengths, which can’t – and shouldn’t – be measured by some years of attending an educational institution.

Until we get there, let’s hope that the students who wish to embark on an intellectual journey get into the universities of their dreams, and that those who fail keep their feet on the ground.

Because there’s more to life than an exam, and perseverance and the willingness to learn will get them further in life than a one-time academic qualification. — VNS

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