High global test scores don't mean Vietnam's schooling is OK

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Vietnam outranked the US in a recent global educational survey, but doing so isn't exactly difficult...

US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew (L) talks with Vietnamese students while he visits Van Mieu, also known as the Temple of Literature, in Hanoi November 14. Vietnam has aced a global exam that gauges students' reading, science and math skills but experts say the country should not rest on its laurels and forget the targets and challenges of the educational reforms the country's leadership has announced since October. PHOTO: REUTERS

Vietnam has aced a global exam that gauges students' reading, science and math skills, but the country's education problems still threaten to drag down the workforce and stall the country's development, experts say.
The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams, administered by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and held every three years since 2000, is an international assessment that measures the performance of 15-year-old students in reading literacy, mathematics literacy, and science literacy.
According to the OECD, around 510,000 students between the ages of 15 years 3 months and 16 years 2 months participated in the assessment, representing about 28 million 15-year-olds globally. The students took a paper-based test that lasted 2 hours. The tests were a mixture of open-ended and multiple-choice questions that were organized in groups based on a passage setting out a real-life situation, it said.
The PISA 2012 results, released Tuesday (December 3), showed that China's Shanghai was on top in reading, math and science, as it was in 2009, followed by Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Macao, Japan, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.
Vietnam, participating for the first time, outscored the US significantly in math and science.
The results sparked a frenzy among Vietnamese netizens, going viral within a few minutes of it being made public. The Ministry of Education and Training called a press conference Wednesday when Vietnamese officials said they were also "surprised" by the results.
Analysts concur that the results are promising for Vietnam, though skepticism surrounds any and all data produced by or within Vietnam.
But whether questioning the results or not, experts say Vietnam should not rest on its laurels and forget the targets and challenges of the educational reforms the country's leadership has announced since October.
"I would not agree that these results are any reason for complacency in Vietnam," Jim Cobbe, a Fulbright scholar who has done extensive research on Vietnam's education system, told Vietweek.
Cobbe said at most "they [may] suggest that primary and lower secondary schools are doing a fairly good job for those still in school at age 15, but they have no implications whatsoever for senior secondary schools, university entrance requirements, or higher education reform."
Experts say the biggest hurdle facing Vietnam's education sector is reform of the higher education sector. In Vietnam, higher education expanded very fast, universities tend to hire their own graduates so weaknesses get prolonged, lecturers are under pressure not to fail students, curricula are not always up to date, and there is little in the way of a culture in universities of teaching quality as opposed to quantity.
"Vietnamese higher education has problems, and it is entirely plausible that graduates in general do not meet company desires," Cobbe said.
Foreign companies have warned that the poor quality of universities will hinder Vietnam's economic growth. Poorly trained graduates have made it difficult for foreign firms to find enough recruits in finance, management, and information technology (IT).
The European Chamber of Commerce (EuroCham) in Vietnam said in its White Book released last month: "Within [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations], Vietnam ranks in the lower half of human resources development. Therefore, improving and upgrading the skills of its workforce is one of Vietnam's key tasks to meet the needs of a rapidly changing labor market."
A World Bank report last week lamented the "shortage of workers with the right skills" that has bedeviled the corporate sector.
"The skills gap is particularly acute among applicants for jobs in technical, professional and managerial positions, while a shortage in applicants is common among more elementary occupations," the report said.
Experts say that while a lot of discussion is taking place comparing the Vietnamese scores to US scores, being able to beat the US in this matter is nothing to be proud of.
"The US has never scored on top of the pack," Dennis Berg, who has worked as an educational consultant in Vietnam for over 20 years. "The US is just about where it has always been in those performance scores."
Experts also point to a wealth of information in the PISA data that would suggest Vietnam has plenty to do in the area of educational reform.
The PISA scores are "likely skewed by students from above average or better off backgrounds "¦ [and] do not sufficiently reflect Vietnam's overall educational milieu," Nguyen Van Tuan, a Vietnamese professor of medicine in Australia with an interest in educational research, told Vietweek.
"The fact is that students living in rural areas or students from disadvantaged backgrounds are continually struggling with inadequate resources and have low level of access to the Internet," he said.
"The PISA results for Vietnam tell us nothing about the quality of the Vietnamese education system which badly needs major reforms."

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