Ending Việt Nam’s ‘Suicide Season’

Almost every summer, the Vietnamese read about the latest group of students who have committed suicide after failing the university entrance exam.

This surprises no one.

Suicides are so common that one news website headline posed the question:

Is this “exam season or suicide season?”

Over the course of two days in July, students take an exam in three subjects that are based on their prospective fields of study.

A future history major, for instance, would have a slightly different mix of subjects than a future physics major.

The exam is largely an assessment of a student’s ability to remember facts.

A month later they find out the results.

This single test determines where Vietnamese students will go to university.

In the view of most families, it might as well determine the rest of their lives.

The pressure is intense, especially in a country where many poor students need a diploma from a good university to rise into the middle class.

When I was a high school student in California, my friends and I did our fair share of cramming.

But we suffered nothing like the Vietnamese.

The pressure isn’t the worst of it.

It’s the fact that the system — and the students’ fate — hinges on a maddening lack of logic and common sense.

examThe pressure is intense, especially in a country where many poor students need a diploma from a good university to rise into the middle class

Reliance on the single test discounts years of high school work.

The test is not the best way to fully assess whether students are ready for higher learning.

Growing up in the United States, I had the comfort of knowing that admissions officers at my dream colleges looked beyond S.A.T. scores and understood that exams are an imperfect gauge of intelligence.

American universities have the scope to consider extracurricular activities, jobs, personal statements, recommendation letters and grades.

They will even consider an artistically-inclined student’s paintings.

Vietnamese universities should evaluate a wider range of criteria when judging students.

But it will be hard to loosen the grip of the university entrance test.

With a centuries-old tradition of civil service exams, Vietnam has long valued standardized assessments.

One university official told me they can’t get rid of the exam until there’s quality control at the high school level.

There had been a plan to eliminate the exam by 2010, but it was scrapped, in part because of concern over issues like rampant grade inflation.

“High schools give generous marks to their students in order to get them into the top universities.”

Said Ngô Thị Phương Lan, vice rector at one of the country’s most prestigious schools, the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Hồ Chí Minh City.

The manipulation of grades underlies a raft of problems.

Teachers are routinely bribed.

They hold “voluntary” classes after hours, where they charge a fee and dole out material that shows up on quizzes.

Cheating is rampant, sometimes with the help of educators.

The university entrance exam also exposes the country’s yawning inequality.

Suicides are more likely among provincial students, who tend to be poorer than their urban peers.

Richer students with low scores can afford to wait a year and take another stab at the exam.

They also can afford to take extra classes to prepare, like the S.A.T. prep courses in the United States, which similarly contribute to skewed scores in favor of the wealthy.

The government is now looking to 2020, when it may allow some colleges to put less weight on the exam and accept students based on high school performance.

In 2016, it plans to simplify the test by requiring fewer subjects and administering it in one day, rather than two (which could bring down stress levels).

But such reforms still won’t require universities to evaluate candidates holistically.

Much as Vietnamese hate to admit it, they have much in common with the Chinese — who ruled them for 1,000 years — not least when it comes to education.

College entrance exams that promote rote memorization at the expense of critical thinking are a national obsession for both countries.

Thanks to China’s one-child policy and similar campains in Việt Nam, smaller households put that much more of a burden on children to perform well.

In China, there is official task of reforming the nationwide test, or gaokao, so that universities also take into account an applicant’s other merits.

If Việt Nam follows suit, universities here could have greater flexibility in recruitment.

Then they could give students more freedom to become well-rounded learners — rather than just stellar test-takers.

HOÀNG LIÊN 

Source: International New York Times

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