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High school exam the most testing of times

By Thanh Nguyen, Nhung Nguyen   June 27, 2019 | 04:58 am PT
High school exam the most testing of times
A student waits outside an examination hall in District 1, HCMC. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.
In Vietnam, national high school exams are a seminal event deciding whether or not one will make it in life.

For nearly one million high school seniors in Vietnam, three days between June 25-27 are one time in their life they cannot afford to fall sick. Or have an accident. Or even oversleep in the morning.

These graduation tests virtually determine their life. The nation-wide exams not only fetch them a high-school diploma but also decide admissions to universities and colleges.

One student in Ho Chi Minh City crawled out of a hospital bed the morning after having an appendectomy on June 24 to write the literature and math tests. An ambulance was parked outside the exam venue the whole time, ready for the worst.

Another candidate in the Mekong Delta city of Can Tho came to the exam room in a wheelchair after meeting with a horrific traffic accident two weeks earlier. Nguyen Thien Nhan, 21, spoke to VnExpress about his yearning to join the Police University.

"For months I’ve been studying while working at the same time. It has not been easy, but now I am ready for the big test."

High school seniors wait for the English test to begin in the exam site of Ernst Thälmann School in D1, Ho Chi Minh City. Photos by Thanh Nguyen.

High school seniors wait for the English test to begin at the Ernst Thälmann School in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. Photos by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.

The two are among 650,000 out of over 925,000 taking the tests in 2019 who would use the scores to apply to their dream universities.

Candidates need to take at least five hours of tests, with three compulsory papers -- math, literature and a foreign language -- and one optional subject from natural sciences (a combination of physics, chemistry, and biology) and social sciences (a combination of history, geography, and civics). To maximize their chances, one can take both and opt for the one with the higher score.

The race is intense, especially for top-tier schools, which this year will admit one candidate in five to engineering and economic courses and only one in 22 to medicine.

A difference of half of a point in a test might make the difference to a candidate's fortunes as an adult. Surveys unequivocally indicate this. In 2018 an average worker earned a salary of VND4.6 million ($197.5) a month while those with a university degree got VND7.9 million ($339.2), a nearly 65 percent jump, according to the General Statistics Office.

Parents wait in Saigons summer heat for their children finish the exam.

Parents brave Saigon's summer heat as their children sit for their high school graduation exams. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.

"Whatever [people] say, universities are still the shortest route to success," Kieu Trang, a woman waiting for her daughter outside an exam venue in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, said. "No one can say, 'Let’s study for 12 years just to go for vocational training'. That’s unnatural."

Given this and the associated stress, families across Vietnam pull out all stops to optimize their children’s chances.

Diets are monitored like an Olympic athlete's to ensure there are no unexpected stomach problems. Beans are a preferred ingredient as their Vietnamese name is a homonym of ‘pass [the test]’, while anything relating to failing or slipping, like bananas, is off the menu. Parents take turns to take days off work to take their children to the exams.

Parents read newspapers as they wait for their children outside an exam center in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.

Parents read newspapers as they wait for their children outside an exam center in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.

Cheating in the exam is becoming increasingly sophisticated. A recent scandal saw a deputy head of a provincial education department's testing and quality assurance unit allegedly altering over 330 answer sheets in eight subjects, helping at least 114 candidates’ scores jump by 90 percent. It was discovered following suspicions over unusually good scores in the poverty-ridden province of Ha Giang.

As the sole determinant of university admission, the grueling test has been subject to criticism as a cause for anxiety and acrimony. Critics also warn the process would only churn out generations of test-driven kids who only know rote learning.

A support staff protects a student from the rain at an exam center in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.

A support staff protects a student from the rain at an exam center in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.

"For years universities have had to take the burden of teaching students soft skills and social manners to compensate for years of rote learning and entrance tests," Nguyen Hoi Nghia, Vice President of the Vietnam National University-Ho Chi Minh City, said. His university has for years been a top choice for students.

"Still we hear complaints from employers, usually about despite how well equipped [graduates] are knowledge-wise, they are ill-prepared to handle work relations and responsibilities," Nghia said.

"Yet, given the country’s conditions, we have to accept this national standardized exam model as the most equitable and appropriate way to evaluate students and train our workforce." By "conditions" he meant a large population, a majority of which is young, the government’s ambition to expand access to higher education and the widening gap in development between provinces.

"But if we want to aim higher than merely churning out graduates who learn by rote, it is high time for determined reform efforts," Nghia said.

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