Vietnam outscored the US in math and science on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, but observers say the country should not forget the problems of its deeply troubled education system. The opinions expressed are their own.
Options and second chances
Students attend a ceremony to celebrate the new school year of 2013 in Le Hong Phong High School in Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam has aced a global exam that gauges students' reading, science and math skills but experts say there are many other things that the educational system should have as their goals besides high test scores. Photo by Dao Ngoc Thach
Jim Cobbe, emeritus professor of economics at Florida State University and a Fulbright scholar who has done extensive research on Vietnam's education system:
Motivation matters a lot; a very large proportion of American 15-year-olds have very poor motivation to do well in school, and in my experience, despite all the talk about testing in the US, American students don't have good exam skills.
And there is a huge difference in objective situations. In Vietnam, students know they must do well or they will not progress, so they will have little chance of a good income, and there are few second chances. In the US, at age 15, many students from many families do not see academic achievement as making much difference to their life chances (and they are often right) very different from Vietnam. In the US education system, there is a plethora of second chances.
In Vietnam, many 15 year olds will also be getting 'extra tuition' in the US, virtually unknown. So the PISA results do not mean all that much about the education system as such much of the difference is likely to be due to motivation and the objective situation, plus family pressure.
James Thompson, a trauma expert at University College London:
To do well on PISA means something. Either the kids are bright or the teachers are very good, or usually, both. The overall PISA results are credible, but like any exam one must make sure that the pupils tested were representative, from a representative range of schools, and that there was no special preparation for the particular test items (for example, teachers "teaching to the test" to the detriment of a broader curriculum). It also depends on some technicalities, about whether any items have been dropped because they are deemed not to be representative, for example if a translation seems to have gone wrong in some way. If the Education Ministry has quietly dropped the weaker schools, then of course the final result will be inflated.
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Usually, high scores on scholastic tests translate into better economies, and also more liberal and kinder societies. This depends somewhat on the quality of the institutions, but as a rule of thumb, bright and well-educated people create societies that are open and pleasant to live in.
What does it mean for a country going through an education shakeup? Usually, that politicians will argue about what is going on, what is working and what blame can be poured on someone else.
The test will be how easy Vietnamese students find it to get scholarships and acceptances to the best universities in the world. Look up the Vietnamese universities on the world rankings, and look at Vietnamese success rates when they seek places abroad. That will give you a good comparison.
If I were Vietnamese, I would feel that my country had done pretty well. On par with Germany, at a fraction of the cost.
Goals besides high test scores
Dennis Berg, who has worked as an educational consultant in Vietnam for over 20 years:
First, I have to say that doing well on the tests is not the same thing as being a well-educated person for the labor market. Employers are looking not just for academically educated people; but for people who can adapt to the employment situations and who will be able to adjust through time to the changes that are inevitable. I'm afraid the Vietnamese systems of education are still not paying enough attention to the total development of the individual; i.e., academics, soft skills, social skills, ethics, critical thinking, life-long learning, etc.
Even though this was a global effort with good methodology, there is a lot of chatter questioning the data from Vietnam. Primarily from those who were shocked that Vietnam and the US was close in outcome. But in fact, there is some error is all data collected like this. If there are concerns, those concerns will be apparent in the analysis of the information to follow. And if those concerns continue into the next iteration, there will be attempts to improve methodology and quality control in the hopes of producing stronger, more reliable numbers. Until then, the information produced in this survey, not only about academic performance but about a whole range of educational related attitudes and behaviors is better information than we have had about Vietnam in a long time.
Finally, the results do not negate the need for continued reform. Even in the US we are in an almost constant state of reform; always looking for the answers that lead us to improve student learning and development. There is a wealth of information in the PISA data that would suggest Vietnam has plenty to do in the area of educational reform. If the test scores were as good as they seem to be and there was no obvious tampering with the data, then that is good. But the test numbers are not the best and there are many other things that educational systems should have as their goals besides high test scores.
The Leaning Tower of Vietnam
Nguyen Van Tuan, a professor at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Australia:
Of course, there is little ecologic correlation between the PISA test scores and the degree of economic development among countries. At the individual level, students who performed well in the tests are not always the brightest students.
I think one has to be cautious in interpreting the PISA results and league tables, because there are serious concerns about the methodology.
PISA tests are only applied to 15-year-olds enrolled fulltime in schools. Now, at this age, cognitive development is still in the stage of development. Thus, arguably, the tests underestimate students' cognitive abilities. This is true because the PISA results represent only a snapshot at a particular point in time; it does not reflect the long-term ability of students.
The issue of "missing values" is a real concern. Professor Svend Kreiner (University of Copenhagen, Denmark) previously examined the PISA data and found that only 10 percent of the students who took part in PISA tests attempted all 28 reading questions. Moreover, the statistical method that PISA uses to handle missing values is not widely accepted in the scientific community. However, to me, the most revealing thing from the Kreiner's finding is that different students from different countries were not tested on the same questions! Consequently, any comparison between countries is subject to bias and errors.
Thus, we have good reasons to doubt the reliability and accuracy of PISA results and league tables. As the saying goes, one cannot compare apples and oranges; similarly, I would like to suggest that one cannot and should not compare a system of rote learning with a system of open learning.