IELTS not suitable for high school admission: experts

By Thanh Hang, Binh Minh   February 28, 2024 | 03:18 pm PT
Several education experts said the IELTS test is not suitable for high school admission, as it is not recommended for people aged under 16.

Over the last few years, some Vietnamese localities have begun to use IELTS scores as a criterion to be considered in the high school admission process. Students can use their IELTS scores to either be directly admitted, get bonus points for school admission, or have the IELTS scores be converted to an English score for the admission process. IELTS scores of 4.0-5.0 were often converted into the English exam score of 9 or 10 out of 10.

The Ministry of Education and Training late last week instructed schools not to use IELTS scores in the high school admission process. In accordance with regulations by the ministry, students with IELTS scores or other foreign language proficiency test scores have no advantage over other students in the admission process.

While several localities believed that including IELTS results in the admission process would relieve the pressure of examination and encourage students to study foreign languages, Lai Thi Phuong Thao, deputy headmistress of the Foreign Language Specialized School, said the education ministry made the right decision.

Thao said the IELTS by itself is inappropriate to be used as a criterion for high school admission, as it is not age-appropriate.

"IELTS has no age requirements for learners, but is not recommended for students under 16," she said.

In order to have test scores for high school admission, students would need to study the IELTS from seventh or eighth grade. This goes against the recommendation of IELTS organizers, as the test would entail multiple fields and disciplines, requiring learners to have basic knowledge of specific fields.

Such requirements are not suitable for students at age 13-14, Thao said.

Students are about to take the high school entrance exam at a school in HCMC, June 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

Students are about to take the high school entrance exam at a school in HCMC, June 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

Phung Thuy Linh, founder of Eduling, an English education firm that offers online classes, and an English expert for the U.S. Department of State, said IELTS is for those who want to go to college and study in English, or those who would like to live in English-speaking countries.

"As such, the test is suitable for those already in high school, who are looking to enter a college or to prove their English proficiency for other purposes," Linh said.

A VnExpress survey of over 4,200 respondents revealed that 73% of them do not agree with using IELTS results to admit students into high school.

Le Van Canh, a former English lecturer at the University of Languages and International Studies, said using the IELTS for high school admission would also breed inequality.

"The chance of going to high school using IELTS results for students in circumstances is much lower than those with the means to study for the test, and actually taking it," Canh said.

The entrance fee for an IELTS test is currently at over VND4.6 million (US$186), not including the fees incurred when one studies for the IELTS at English centers, which typically clocks in at VND20-40 million for a 4-6 month-long course. If one decides to study the IELTS by themselves, they would still need to purchase study materials or enroll in online courses.

Nguyen Tan, director of the Thua Thien-Hue Department of Education and Training, said using IELTS scores for admission without exams or bonus points would not be fair for those without the means to study for it.

Teachers also said the current high school English curriculum itself is incompatible with the IELTS.

In accordance with the high school English curriculum by the education ministry, students graduating from high school would be able to gain proficiency in the Vietnamese Standardized Test of English Proficiency (VSTEP). IDP, one of the two organizers for the IELTS test in Vietnam, said a Level 3 proficiency in the VSTEP would equate to an IELTS score of 4.0-5.0.

"Students entering high school with an IELTS score of 4.0 means they have already reached the level of proficiency of a high school graduate. So the question is, throughout the three years in high school, will they get a different curriculum? How will the teachers teach?" Thao said.

Others, however, said the IELTS and other foreign language proficiency examinations still hold value in the high school admission process.

Vu Thi Phuong Anh, a former strategic counselor for the National Foreign Language Program, said the education ministry should not forbid localities from using the IELTS or other proficiency exams in the high school admission process. Instead, they can control the number of students being directly admitted, or have bonus scores added, for example by limiting the percentage of students being admitted this way by 5-10%.

"Each locality has different economic circumstances and students. For example, in a locality where the students are not good at English, they would need policies to promote and encourage English education. This is an appropriate goal," she said.

An English teacher in the northern mountainous Lao Cai Province opposes using IELTS results for direct high school admission, but says IELTS scores can be converted to English scores for the high school entrance examination.

"The education ministry’s instruction can take effect starting next year, as this year's students might have already been studying for the IELTS to get admitted. A sudden change would derail their plans and waste their efforts," she said.

If localities still want to use foreign language proficiency exam scores for the admission process or promoting the study of English, experts said such exams need to be age-appropriate for secondary students.

Linh of Eduling added, "If the IELTS were to be replaced by another exam, localities and schools should choose an exam that focuses on practical English skills, instead of relying on grammar and vocabulary."

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