English scores in high school exam reflect regional inequalities

By Manh Tung, Duong Tam   July 28, 2021 | 09:00 pm PT
English scores in high school exam reflect regional inequalities
A foreigner teaches English to Vietnamese students of an English center at a park in HCMC, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.
This year's national high school graduation exams have revealed an atypical score spectrum in English scores that experts say show education quality differences between urban and rural areas.

In the 2021 examination held July 7-9, over 871,000 students sat for seven foreign language exams: English, Russian, French, China, German, Korean and Japanese. Almost 99 percent of the students chose English and recorded an average score of 5.84 out of 10.

While this year's average English score was 1.26 marks higher than last year, the score spectrum showed an anomaly with high numbers of students scoring between 4-5 and 8-9 marks. Normally a score spectrum would only have a single peak in a particular score range, not two.

Foreign language teachers with the Hoc Mai online tutoring service speculate that those scoring in the 8-9 range represent students who benefited from strong investments in teaching English, mostly residents of urban areas where more affluent families can afford sending their children to good schools as well as good English-teaching institutions.

Meanwhile, those scoring in the 4-5 range represent a "commoners' peak" for the rest of the students.

Do Van Dung, former headmaster of the HCMC University of Technology and Education, said this year's English score spectrum was not as anomalous as it seems. It simply reflected the differences in foreign language education quality and general foreign language proficiency between different areas, he said.

For example, 60-70 percent of students in poor and remote regions like the northwest or the Central Highlands have scored below 5 in English, showing insufficient basic foreign language capabilities. Most of those living in areas with higher living standards like Hanoi, Hai Phong and HCMC have greater access to an English education, helping them score in the 8-10 range.

The score spectrum of the 2021 national high school graduation exam in the English subject. Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Education and Training.

The score spectrum of the 2021 national high school graduation exam in the English subject. Graphics by the Ministry of Education and Training.

Most importantly, the results highlight the inequalities in education quality that ill serve students in poorer and more remote areas. It means policymakers and educators need to work harder to narrow the education gap between regions, especially in foreign languages like English, Dung said.

Such inequalities are a barrier for students in poorer areas accessing schools of choice. Those living in cities who are generally better at English will gravitate more towards certain subject groups wherein English language scores play a greater part in enrollment, effectively excluding those from rural areas and widening the divide.

However, the results have also shown some improvements. The score spectrum shows that the average English score has been rising, and fewer students scored below 5 points compared to last year. More students are also having perfect scores of 10, with the number 20 times higher than last year.

In Vietnam, English is a compulsory subject from 3rd grade onwards. Students in public schools are mostly taught using the traditional methods of grammar exercises and vocabulary cramming. In major cities like Hanoi and HCMC, many parents send their children to English centers at an early age.

Several English language proficiency rankings have placed Vietnam in the low-proficiency category, even in the lower spectrum among Southeast Asian countries.

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