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Missing the forest for the trees: National English exam results reconsidered

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Vietnamese students did not perform well in their national high school English test this year, but is that really bad news ?

Last month, Vietnam wrapped up the annual rite of passage that is the national high school graduation exam. Of the 900,000 graduating high school seniors who took the exam, 750,000 took the one-hour English test, which consists of 50 multiple-choice questions. 63.1 percent of the test takers received below average scores; over half scored 3.4 out of 10 while 543 students scored below 1. The average score of 4.58 was the lowest among nine subjects in the 2020 national high school graduate examination.

This lackluster performance set the media alarm bells ringing with screaming headlines like “Vietnamese students perform worst in English in national high school exam.” It was accompanied by much gnashing of teeth, breast-beating, and finger-pointing. A cursory review of related articles in the Vietnamese and English language media and social media outlets confirms this observation with an exclamation point. As if on cue, journalists reached out to me to ask what I think about Vietnamese students’ English proficiency, the reasons for their poor performance, and steps educators should take to improve the situation.

There was the same reaction last year when the EF English Proficiency Index (EPI) rankings were announced. Vietnam had dropped to the upper echelon of “low” from “moderate,” i.e., from 41st out of 88 countries in 2018 to 52nd out of 100 in 2019. The report noted cryptically that Vietnam “has some difficulties in keeping up with the worldwide increase in English proficiency.” While the EF index is widely publicized as a barometer of nationwide English achievement, it is of limited value because it attempts to rank countries by the average level of English language skills among those adults who took the test, including EF students.

Not surprisingly, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) students achieved the highest average score at 5.85 in the national graduation exam, followed by Binh Duong and Ba Ria-Vung Tau in southern Vietnam. Hanoi, the nation’s other major urban center, was in fourth place, followed by Nam Dinh and Hai Phong. In a reflection of the urban-rural divide that applies to so many areas of life, northern provinces such as Hoa Binh, Son La, and Ha Giang recorded the lowest scores.

In other words, their performance was based not only on English instruction offered by their schools but also extracurricular activities such as tutoring, private English centers, Internet access, including livestreaming services like Netflix, and short-term foreign language programs, or the absence thereof.

It’s time, once again, to take a step back, rationally assess the state of English language instruction in Vietnam and reframe the debate. Aside from the limitations of an exam that only tests for grammatical and reading knowledge and neglects speaking, listening, and writing skills, there is the far more important question of whether it makes pedagogical and societal sense to require all students to study English or any other foreign language, for that matter. Another related issue is the steadily improving English proficiency of growing numbers of young Vietnamese.

Giving credit where it’s due

Based on extensive in-country and regional experience, I have good news amidst this rhetorical gloom and doom. Vietnam compares very favorably to other Asian countries, including those with huge economic, educational, and historical advantages such as China, Japan, South Korea and Thailand. If you’ve traveled to one or more of these countries and Vietnam, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Since 2005, I’ve noticed a sea change in the ability of growing numbers of young people to communicate in English. Vietnam is to be congratulated on this singular achievement.

Foreign colleagues who travel to Vietnam on a regular basis and interact with students online – before and during the Covid-19 pandemic – tell me how impressed they are with the English skills of young people here. I’m amazed and inspired by the overall quality of English proficiency, the high level of motivation, and the sheer amount of effort people invest in learning the language.

In addition, those of us who work in the field of international education have noticed a steady improvement in the English proficiency of young people outside of the major urban areas. For example, students who attend education fairs in cities like Da Nang, Hai Phong, and Nha Trang have much better English proficiency than they did just five years ago, which enables them to speak directly to representatives of foreign educational institutions rather than through an interpreter.

Instead of making English proficiency results the perennial object of national criticism, why not begin with the fundamental question of whether or not Vietnam actually needs to require English starting in the third grade?

How many young people really need to know English?

The economic reality is that not all Vietnamese need to be proficient in English. Moreover, while English is the most popular foreign language, young people are studying a number of other important languages, including East Asian ones like Chinese, Japanese and Korean; and European ones like French, German and Spanish.

Most Vietnamese will require no foreign language proficiency once they enter the world of work. Let that sink in for a moment.

Those who do will need different skill sets, depending upon the nature of their work. One size doesn’t fit all. This ranges from a solid reading knowledge of the language, functional proficiency, defined as “the ability to communicate in basic social, travel and non-specialized work situations,” to C1 (effective operational proficiency or advanced) or C2 (mastery or proficiency) levels using the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). There are also those young people who want to learn English or another foreign language simply because of the intrinsic benefits and rewards of fluency.

Why not offer English as an elective to students who are interested in learning it for whatever reason, including those who are categorized as linguistically gifted? This would create opportunities to offer high quality instruction, both on- and offline, and in urban and rural areas, to motivated students, resulting in better learning outcomes and greater proficiency.

The current “shotgun” approach creates unnecessary stress for students, parents, and teachers, and is inefficient. Vietnam’s education system should recognize this reality, reorder its priorities, and reallocate its resources accordingly.

By Mark A. Ashwill – – September 8, 2020

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