Vietnamese exam for English proficiency not welcomed at home

By Binh Minh   November 30, 2022 | 04:42 pm PT
Vietnamese exam for English proficiency not welcomed at home
Students participating in the high school graduation exams at Le Quy Don High School in HCMC's District 3, July 8, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran
Despite cheap fees and similarities with international English proficiency exams like IELTS or TOEFL, Vietnamese equivalent VSTEP is not widely used at home.

With many international English proficiency exams postponed in November, students were on the edge, especially those in the final year of high school who need the results to fast-track their university applications. Major universities like Vietnam National University HCMC with its member colleges were considering accepting VSTEP, a Vietnamese domestic version of the English proficiency exam, to admit students.

VSTEP is an English test consisting of four portions: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. It aims to evaluate the English levels of students according to the Vietnamese scale of language proficiency published by the Ministry of Education of Training in 2015. The test was designed by the University of Languages and International Studies (ULIS), a member of the Vietnam National University, Hanoi.

According to professor Ha Le Kim Anh, vice dean of ULIS, VSTEP is the first systemized test of English proficiency in Vietnam and 25 universities across the country are authorized to administer and certify this test.

"VSTEP's structure is not different from the international proficiency exams like IELTS or TOEFL. So, Vietnamese universities could definitely use VSTEP as a tool to fast-track students with language skills for admission," Anh said.

The exam fee of VSTEP is VND1.5 to 1.8 million ($60.85 to $73), significantly lower than IELTS (VND4.6 million).

In 2022, ULIS initiated the admission of students with VSTEP English results, with 21 students admitted to study English language and English education majors.

Outside ULIS, however, VSTEP is almost non-existent.

According to a survey by VnExpress, ULIS was the only among 51 universities in Hanoi to accept VSTEP certificates for admissions in the 2022 school year. For graduation requirements, only 28 Hanoi universities accept VSTEP.

Bui Hoang Thang, head of the academic training department at the HCMC University of Technology, said the school orients itself toward international standards, so it encourages students to take international exams and certificates to find opportunities abroad later.

Dr. Tran Manh Ha, his counterpart at the Banking Academy, said the school prioritizes IELTS and TOEFL iBT for admission, as these tests provide more opportunities for students to pursue graduate schools abroad or find jobs in international environments.

A representative of a VSTEP test center observes that most students and families are very well acquainted with IELTS and TOEFL, to the extent that they barely consider the option of other exams.

Phung Manh Huy, a grade-12 student in a high school for gifted students in Hanoi, began preparing for IELTS and SAT at the beginning of grade 11, two years before his university admission. He received an 8.0 IELTS score and a 1530 SAT score, which could secure him a place in many top domestic universities while granting him a chance to study abroad too.

"I don't know about VSTEP," Huy said. "Also, I would like to study abroad, so international tests like IELTS would serve me better."

Bui Thanh Trung, a student from a rural area in the northern Ha Nam Province, also chose to study IELTS because of its wide popularity. "It would help me to apply to exchange programs and many scholarships at university," Trung said.

Also, VSTEP exam results do not expire, compared to the two-year validity of IELTS or TOEFL. This keeps international tests more updated and precise, according to exam takers.

International proficiency exams also help in job applications. "People with IELTS results would have an easier time applying for jobs due to the test's popularity. Not many corporates know about VSTEP," a test-preparation expert said.

Nevertheless, nine members of the Vietnam National University HCMC announced plans to incorporate VSTEP into their admission and education in the following time.

"VSTEP provides more options for students from a less affluent background with no intention to go abroad in the foreseeable future," said Pham Tan Ha, vice dean of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, HCMC.

To him, VSTEP is in no way an easy test, provided that the standard of test examiners and test administration is secured. Furthermore, the universal standard of the test should also be improved.

For VSTEP to be more widely recognized and used, Kim Anh suggested that the education ministry could use the test to waive English tests in the national high school graduation exams. Vietnam should also introduce the test internationally so that institutions in other countries could recognize its validity as an alternative for IELTS or TOEFL, Anh said.

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