Vietnamese college hopefuls miss dream school despite acing national exam

Vietnam’s university admittance systems proves that sometimes even the best aren’t good enough

High school seniors sit the 2017 National High School Exam at Ernst Thalmann High School in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Some Vietnamese students who scored top marks on the national high school exam in June are finding the doors closed to their top choice universities after falling short in the country’s family background-based bonus point system.

Comparatively easy exams coupled with a controversial bonus-point system have resulted in over-the-top university entrance scores this year, forcing top-performers without underprivileged family backgrounds to enroll in their backup schools.

In June, hundreds of thousands of high school seniors across Vietnam sat a three-day national exam involving separate sections – math, literature, foreign language, natural sciences, and social sciences.

The natural sciences paper consists of separate sections for physics, chemistry and biology, while the social sciences paper includes questions on geography, history, and civics.

Results of the exam are used both as a prerequisite for high school graduation and as a tool for universities to screen applicants by evaluating scores from a combination of three sections.

A supervisor checks a student’s ID before exam starts at Nguyen Thi Dieu High School in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City, June 21, 2017. Photo: Tuoi Tre
A supervisor checks a student’s ID before exam starts at Nguyen Thi Dieu High School in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City, June 21, 2017. Photo: Tuoi Tre

When the best isn’t good enough

H., a student from Hanoi, finished the national exam with a total rounded score of 29.25 out of 30 after achieving marks of 9.4 in math, 9.75 in chemistry and 10 in biology out of the maximum 10 points awarded in each subject. 

With nearly perfect scores, it wasn’t unreasonable for H. to be confident that she’d have the opportunity to attend her top-choice university – the prestigious, 115-year-old Hanoi Medical University in Hanoi.

Unfortunately for H., sometimes being the best just isn’t good enough.

Though the university’s benchmark score is set at a lofty 29.25, there are still far more qualified applicants than available spots in the incoming class, forcing the institution to resort to secondary criteria to shorten its list.

With an unrounded score of 29.15, H. was 0.05 points shy of meeting the secondary criterion.

Acceptance standards were slightly stricter at other universities, such as the People’s Security Academy in Hanoi, which trains police officers, security agents, and inspectors.

The academy’s faculty of English linguistics only takes in students with total scores from 30.5, while the maximum possible score in any combination of three subjects is only 30, made possible by the existence of a bonus-point system gives additional merits to students with underprivileged family backgrounds.

Students of ethnic descent, living in remote areas, or with one or both parents registered as war invalids are entitled to bonuses up to 3.5 points.

This system, combined exams education experts consider far too easy, have led to top-scoring students missing out on the opportunity to attend their university of choice.

Students and parents receive admission slips at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Economics, August 2, 2017. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Students and parents receive admission slips at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Economics, August 2, 2017. Photo: Tuoi Tre

There’s no best of both worlds

“The problem lies in the difficulty level of the tests,” said Assoc. Prof. Do Van Dung, rector of Ho Chi Minh City University of Education. “You can’t blame the test compiler for the fact that the exam is designed for both graduation and university entrance purposes.”

In 2014, the Vietnamese Ministry of Education and Training approved a landmark plan to merge the high school graduation and university entrance exams, held just one month apart, into a single national exam to be held every June beginning the following year.

The decision was considered a progressive move to reduce the immense stress and pressure that high school seniors often faced while preparing for both exams.

“For a graduation exam, the test must be easy enough for an average student to pass and should contain only few challenging questions to separate top students from the rest,” Dung explained. “Meanwhile, a university entrance exam requires a whole different level of difficulty to separate the best from good and average students.”

“If we designed the exam to suit the purpose of screening university applicants, it would be so difficult that many students would not be able to graduate,” he added. “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

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