Vietnam Gets Tough on School Cheats

Vietnam's new education minister, Nguyen Thien Nhan, has delivered a nasty jolt to the country's secondary education system, driving down test scores dramatically in an effort to eliminate widespread cheating and academic corruption.

According to a June 18 news release from the Ministry of Education, only 67.5 percent of high school students passed their graduation exams for the 2006-2007 academic year, down from well above 90 percent in recent years.

‘Accurate results’

Thus as many as a third of the country's high school students – some 320,000 of them – will have to retake the examinations in August, authorities said. One school in central Quang Ngai Province reported shocking results, according to the ministry – not one of the school's high school students passed the exams.

Despite the results, the general sentiment seems to be positive, as many people think that for the first time after a long period of fake achievements, the test scores accurately reflected students’ ability.

For many years, the hapless Education Ministry has been criticized for many problems - students forced to study too much while at the same time cheating was widespread and schools faked examination results to bolster their reputation with central government officials. Cheating during exams is especially appalling. In a 2006 survey of nearly 2000 students, 90 percent said the use of prohibited materials was the most popular trick. Some 36 percent of the respondents said bribing for higher grades was common. And in these hi-tech times, rich students could get wigs wired to mobile phones so they could receive the answers directly into their ears. A ringleader, arrested last year, charged students up to US$3,125 to use the technology.

The "disease of chasing academic records", as many put it, is contagious. Last May, Dao Ngoc Dung, a youth member of the Communist Party's Central Committee, was found violating rules during a postgraduate exam. He was later removed from his post as head of the Communist Youth Union. Although speculation is that party infighting led to Dung’s downfall, the fact that a seemingly minor offence was enough to remove a rising politician indicated the changing mood of the times.

Campaign against cheating

As Vietnam pledged to cleanse the rot in the education system, an ordinary teacher in a northern province last year became famous nationwide after he blew the whistle on cheaters. Using his cell-phone to secretly record his students’ connivance during exams and having the clips broadcast on national television, Do Viet Khoa, from Ha Tay, kicked off the anti-cheating movement. Last July, when Nguyen Thien Nhan took over the Education Ministry, his first symbolic gesture was a visit to Khoa’s family.

A campaign called "Say No to Fraud in Exams” was launched. In preparation for the high school graduation exams, stricter supervision was implemented. Schools were ordered to secure their gates and walls. A record 55,000 teachers worked as exam proctors, and 6,000 inspectors were sent to testing locations nationwide to ensure order. While these measures are not exactly new, this time they seem to have been enforced more properly.

A pledge that no heads would roll in the event of a fall in graduation rates also helped. The test-score hyperinflation has been most endemic in poor regions, where educational quality is questionable. Afraid of losing face and their jobs local authorities and teachers alike for years turned a blind eye to exam fraud. This year, many local officials said they weren’t surprised with the results.

In Nghe An, Ho Chi Minh's birthplace, where people are traditionally proud of their educational accomplishments, there is a sense of shock among parents at what was called the worst result in nearly 40 years. One parent, whose child failed, acknowledged he had never cared about his child's study, assuming exams were meant to be passed. But he agreed it was right to tighten the regulations. The head of Nghe An's education department put it best when he said the result would force "students to study, teachers to teach, and families to care about their children."

This year’s high school graduation exam results also suggest that the widening wealth gap across regions has an impact on education. Of the localities with the highest passing rates, wealthy Ho Chi Minh City led with 95.1 percent passing marks, followed by Nam Dinh with 90.3 percent and Thai Binh with 86.3 percent. Hanoi ranked fourth at 86.2 percent. The mountain province of Tuyen Quang had the lowest pass rate at only 14 percent. To address such inequalities in education will be a daunting task for policymakers in the years to come.

The reform process is far from smooth. Do Viet Khoa, hailed as a hero by the media for blowing the whistle in Ha Tay, tasted bitter experience when he sought to stand for the National Assembly. In April, during the screening process in his neighborhood, Khoa was approved by 76 percent of the voters. But at his school, none of Khoa’s colleagues voted for him, so he was eliminated. Khoa told the local media his aggressive anti-fraud stance may have irritated many teachers.

Whoever the losers are, the winner appears to be the Education Minister Nguyen Thien Nhan, who urged the schools to carry out what he described as a "Two No's" campaign: No cheating and No false records. The graduation exam results will be used as proof that the exam has become more rigorous, with fewer false reports of educational quality. The exam results may even be good for Nhan politically. There are reports that the East Germany-trained technocrat will be promoted to the post of deputy prime minister when the newly-elected National Assembly holds its first meeting in July.

During his stint at the Education Ministry, Nhan encountered obstacles from some ministry officials who he was too tough. Ironically, the minister was also criticized by some for not being tough enough. Now that the general population seem to regard the exam results as something of an achievement, Nhan can claim credit before moving up the political ladder. It will be up to the ministry to see that his reforms continue.