Vietnam deputy education minister not convinced by global test

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A ninth-grader at a secondary school in Ho Chi Minh City buys food from a street stall in front of school before heading to extra night classes / PHOTO COURTESY OF TUOI TRE

Despite outranking many Western countries on a recent global test, Vietnamese students' overall capacity is still "poor", according to a local deputy education minister.

Nguyen Vinh Hien, Deputy Minister of Education and Training, told Tuoi Tre (youth) newspaper on Friday that the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, does not assess students' overall competence.

Held globally every three years by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the tests measure only math, reading, and science literacy among about 500,000 15-year-old students from 65 countries and regions.

Even though PISA's 2012 results, announced early this week, ranked Vietnam over many wealthy western countries, including the US, in math and science, "we have to be honest and admit that if fully assessed, Vietnamese students' capacity is still poor," Hien said.

But he also said that by participating in PISA tests, Vietnam can learn about its position in comparison with other countries, adding that by analyzing PISA results, Vietnam will also able to understand what is affecting its efforts to improve education.

Dr. Giap Van Duong also wrote in the newspaper that compared to "the four pillars of education" prescribed by UNESCO--learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together, and learning to be--PISA targets only a small part of the first pillar.

Duong holds doctorates in physics and used to work with universities in England and Austria.

He said PISA tests were limited because they use 15-year-olds as their subjects. At that age, students are still immature and their knowledge is far from meeting the demand of practical fields like business, administration, culture, and arts, he said.

If the test targeted older people such as 20-year-old university students or 30-year-olds who are working, Vietnam's results would "definitely" be much lower, according to Duong.

In fact, many Vietnamese students fail to land a job after graduation.  When they study overseas, many have difficulties in meeting the requirements of advanced education systems like team-work, problem solving and creativity, he said.

Duong went on to quote the Asian Productivity Organization's 2012 report as saying that Vietnamese people's productivity is about 20 times lower than that of American people.

No surprise

Duong said Vietnam's performance on the PISA tests was no surprise, because local students traditionally learn a lot, both during their main and extra classes.

Moreover, Vietnam prepared its students well for the tests, even  organizing mock tests a year prior to the real exams, he said.

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"Vietnamese education's focus is on learning to pass exams. The whole system operates to serve only one purpose: exams."

Students here take exams to enroll in the first grade, the sixth-grade, the tenth-grade, and then universities, and every exam is "tense" and "competitive," the scholar said.

"The tradition of learning to pass exams" is typical of Confucian education systems and is also found in other Asian countries like China, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea, he said.

All these countries ranked high in PISA tests, although their development is on par with or lower than that of the US and western countries.

This indicated that the tradition was probably affected the tests' results, Duong said.

He noted that among countries with Confucian traditions, Vietnam ranked the lowest, so there was no reason to be happy about the country's ranking.

Even China, which ranked first, sends millions of students abroad for studies in countries with lower PISA rankings, Duong said.

Objective

On the other hand, Le Thi My Ha, country director of PISA in Vietnam, told Tuoi Tre that PISA's results were "objective", "correct," and reflect the educational quality of attending countries and economies.

She said Vietnam submitted a list of schools and students in urban areas, the countryside, and mountainous areas to PISA, which  chose more than 5,000 students from the list randomly with software.

PISA's tests were available in English and French and participating countries had them translated into their native languages under the close supervision of PISA.

For every subject, students took a paper-based test that lasted two 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.

Ha said PISA prescribes an assessment framework on its own, without following any country's education program.

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