Educators not surprised by exam-cheating survey

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Society to blame for stoking academic achievement frenzy

 
Students and their parents pray for success on the upcoming college admission examinations at an altar dedicated to Confucius inside the Temple of Literature in Hanoi. Photo: AFP

Vietnamese educators have endorsed a survey that found almost 85 percent of students acknowledging rampant cheating in the recent high school graduation exams, saying the findings came as no surprise to them.

Done last month by Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper together with sociologists, it polled 500 high school students who took this year's exam in 36 provinces and cities. More than 84 percent said discussing test questions was common, and 83.5 percent said they saw students copy from others. More than a third (36.4 percent) said proctors watched students discuss answers without acting, and 23.4 percent said they saw cheat sheets being used.

The newspaper initiated the survey after the Ministry of Education and Training reported a graduation rate of around 98 percent, raising the hackles of educators, especially after the exam had been marred by a sensational scandal in northern Vietnam.

Six teachers and staff members of a private school in the northern province of Bac Giang were axed after videos posted on the Internet showed the use of cheat sheets with proctors' help during the exam. A student had recorded the proceedings with a pen camera.

After the survey findings were released Monday, a number of educators, researchers, and former senior education officials said they were not surprised. A former deputy education minister even attributed the high graduation rates to widespread cheating.

But Ben Wilkinson, co-author of a 2008 report on Vietnam's higher education done by the Harvard University's Kennedy School, told Vietweek: "I don't think cheating on the high school graduation examination is a new phenomenon. Many educators believed that it was perhaps more prevalent 10 years ago.

"It is difficult to escape the conclusion that local governments cannot be relied on to accurately report on what is happening."

In 2010 Transparency International's Global Corruption Barometer for Vietnam found that education was perceived as the second most corrupt sector. Corrupt practices ranged from siphoning off money meant for poor students to plagiarism and rigging exam marks, the Berlin-based organization said.

In a Confucian society where academic achievement is a national obsession, a culture of cheating nurtured at the top of the system has flowed downward, permeating examinations at every level.

In 2006 a Party member and ministerial-ranked official was penalized after proctors caught him using crib sheets in a postgraduate exam. The same year Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung vowed to crack down on the widespread cheating in exams after 900 cases were uncovered during university entrance tests.

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Dung at the time condemned the "disease of chasing academic achievement" through cheating and his then Education Minister Nguyen Thien Nhan launched a campaign euphemistically called "Say No to Negative Phenomena in Exams" to combat the worsening trend.

The campaign sent graduation rates plummeting in the next two years. But the cheating has not reduced in schools, as the media has been reporting.

Teachers too seem no better.

An English language instructor teaching primary-school teachers in Ho Chi Minh City said she was very "disappointed" to find that her students cheated in their exams. Three out of 20 did so, she told Vietweek, asking not to be named.

"They cheated out of fear that if they failed they would lose face and, most importantly, not get promoted or lose their jobs.

"But what really disappoints me is the fact that it is these very teachers who teach their students to be honest in exams. They are supposed to set an example."

Experts blame both the education authorities and society for the failure to vigorously continue the fight against cheating.

Tran Hong Quan, who was education minister for a decade up to 1997, said the 2006 education ministry-initiated crackdown has kind of gone off the tracks.

"But the responsibility is not just with the [education] ministry.

"If society continues to pursue its craze for academic achievement, and if job promotions hinge on degree-based criteria, academic honesty will continue to be a casualty."

In August last year netizens accused another government bigwig of having a bogus doctorate degree. Vu Viet Ngoan, the PM-appointed chairman of the National Financial Supervisory Committee, proceeded to shrug off allegations that the doctorate was from a cheap US diploma mill. It is not known if official investigators have looked into it.

The media has been reporting regularly about officials across Vietnam using fraudulent high school diplomas to get promoted or retain their bureaucratic jobs.

The Harvard report said "it is well known that degrees and titles can be purchased" in Vietnam.

Minister of Interior Nguyen Thai Binh did not dismiss recent rumors about a growing trend of bribes-for-jobs plaguing government bureaucracies, saying merely it would be very "difficult" to expose such cases.

Hoang Tuy, a prominent educator, summed it up best in an article several years ago: "Recently a great number of officials have acquired academic titles dishonestly; they are completely undeserving of these honors, but many people still believe that they are meant only for individuals of outstanding talent."

Rote learning the culprit

Vietweek spoke to a number of high school students who said they were typically under intense pressure to memorize vast amounts of information for the exams, and blamed this for many people cheating.

Educationists have lambasted teaching methods for being too passive, with students having little chance to interact with the teacher, discuss issues, or ask questions.

Last month Luong Khanh Vu, a high-school student in the Mekong Delta province of Vinh Long, thought something was wrong with the photo of the man supposed to be Ernest Rutherford, a British chemist and physicist who became known as the father of nuclear physics, hanging in his school lab.

"I was sure the photo was that of Rutherford Hayes," Vu said, referring to a 19th US president.

"I first told my friends but no one dared to report to the teachers.

"I reported it to my chemistry teacher. He reacted angrily and told me not to act like a know-it-all."

The photo was only changed when a second teacher recognized the mistake.

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