Impacts of Vietnamese Standardized Test of English Proficiency (VSTEP) on the first year students’ English language learning


24-01-2017
Impacts of Vietnamese Standardized Test of English Proficiency (VSTEP) on the first year students’ English language learning at University of Languages and International Studies (ULIS), Vietnam National University, Hanoi (VNU).


Abstract: Due to the globalization of the English language, a global testing campaign has been established, specially standardized English proficiency tests. In Vietnam, a new national English test - the Vietnamese Standardized Test of English Proficiency (VSTEP) applied at the University of Languages and International Studies (ULIS), Vietnam National University, Hanoi (VNU) and other schools has gradually assumed a greater gate-keeping role. This paper aims to investigate the impacts of the VSTEP as a graduation requirement on the first year university students’ English learning at ULIS. The paper begins with some background information about English language’s role and certification exit requirements. The next section discusses the context that induced the introduction and implementation of the policy of using VSTEP certificates to determine graduation eligibility. ThINTRODUCTION
 
In Vietnam, the teaching activities in classes are not delivered in an effective way for students to achieve sufficient levels of competence to pass the certifications required for recruitment (Hoang, 2011). Ha (2007) argues that the level of communicative competence in English of most Vietnamese employees are still very low, and many freshly graduated students cannot get jobs in foreign companies because of the English language requirements. Pham (2004) estimated that in a class of fifty English major learners, fewer than ten graduates have the sufficient English skills for jobs such as interpreters, translators, tour guides or teachers of English.
Moreover, English has played a predominant role in the foreign language teaching program at tertiary level in Vietnam for a long period (Hoang Van Van, 2008). In 1986, opening the door of Vietnam to the world and under the impact of globalisation and internationalisation in higher education lead to the demand for enhancing English language teaching and learning which is one of the most important purposes of higher education renovation in Vietnam.
The current issues point to the fact that Vietnam should upgrade the currently low English teaching and English use standards in order to catch up with the fast globalisation process, sizable inputs and major changes. Therefore, in early 2008, Vietnamese Ministry of Education & Training (MOET) gave an official instruction, requiring universities and colleges to articulate their graduation standards, among which is the English requirement, by the end of the same year.
This paper aims at investigating the impacts of VSTEP as a graduation requirement on the first year students at ULIS, VNU.
 
LITERATURE REVIEW
 
The introduction of the VSTEP as an English certificate exit requirement at ULIS
It has been obvious that many tertiary institutions integrated graduation standard control into study programmes which was essential for assuring the quality of institutions’ qualifications. Most universities in Vietnam adopted standardized English proficiency tests such as TOEIC) and TOEFL, either self-developed tests or external public tests, as the means of standards control. ULIS is an example of this policy. The institution has newly applied a national English proficiency test called Vietnamese Standardized Test of English Proficiency (VSTEP) and required all the students to submit evidence of the required English level measured by the VSTEP for graduation.
The VSTEP is a standardized test designed to measure the English proficiency of undergraduate students at ULIS. The test is based on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) and be relevant to the context of English use in Vietnam. The test targets level 3 to level 5. The students of ULIS need to achieve level 5 which is equivalent to the level C1 of the CEFR test. Like most of the CEFR - based test, VSTEP consists of four sections: listening, reading, writing and speaking. The innovation - setting the VSTEP as a graduation requirement – is expected to have impacts on what and how teachers teach and what and how students learn, thereby promoting students’ English skills development.
What is impact?
Recently, in language testing research, some researchers have distinguished between ‘washback’ and ‘impact’. According to Wall (1997), test impact is “any of the effects that a test may have on individuals, policies or practices, within the classroom, the school, the educational system or society as a whole” whereas washback is “the effects of tests on teaching and learning” (p. 291). Bachman and Palmer (1996) considered washback as one dimension of test impact; thus, the impact of the test is divided two levels: the micro level, such as the effect of a test on individual students and teachers, and the macro level, such as the impact on society and its educational systems.
At micro level, since the 1990s, the term ‘washback’ (Alderson & Wall, 1993) in the field of applied linguistics and ‘backwash’ (Biggs, 1996) in general education has been used to refer to the impact which occurs in the form of teaching and learning directed towards a test, in terms of both intended positive effects or unintended effects and perhaps negative effects (Alderson & Wall, 1993; Bachman & Palmer, 1996; Cheng, Watanabe, & Curtis, 2004; Hughes, 2003). Concurring with this, Taylor (2005) also said that washback can be considered positive (beneficial) or negative (harmful). Positive washback encourages good teaching and learning practices while negative washback encourages bad teaching and learning practices.
In a broader way, Bachman and Palmer (1996) argued that washback was a more complex phenomenon than simply the effect of a test on teaching and learning. They think the impact of a test should be evaluated with reference to the contextual variables of society's goals and values, the educational system in which the test is used, and the potential outcomes of its use.
Despite different terms defined by different researchers, they all referred to
different aspects of the same phenomenon. Research studies showed that impact/ washback was an educational phenomenon related to (1) the relationship between teaching, learning and testing, and the relationship between different curriculum components, and to (2) curriculum change and innovation.
The term ‘washback’at a micro level used interchangeably with impact was chosen in this study as it covers the impact of the VSTEP as a graduation requirement on the first year students’ learning at ULIS.
Impacts of some English tests as a graduation requirement
There have been many studies related to the today’s trend in language testing field which are using English proficiency tests as a graduation requirement for students. Among several studies, there are three studies which are worth focusing on in more detail.
The first study was conducted in context of Taiwan titled “The impact of implementing English proficiency tests as a graduation requirement” at Taiwanese universities of technology by Hui-Fen Hsu (2009). The researcher explored the impacts of a new educational policy on two groups of university students: non-English major students who had to pass one of a set of English proficiency tests at a specified level as a graduation requirement and major English students who did not prescribe any English graduation requirement. The results of the study showed that washback on students’ learning related to three aspects: students’ learning context, students’ perception of the impact of the test and their learning. With respect to the students’ learning contexts, the implementation of English proficiency tests as a graduation requirement did have a minimal washback effect on the classroom activities and it did not encourage more English-medium activities outside class. With regard to students’ perceptions of the impact of English proficiency tests, although students really did not like examinations, examinations seemed to be one of their key motivations for learning English, indicating the important role of examinations in students’ lives. With regard to students’ learning, students who had to comply with the graduation regulation seemed not to be making a concerted effort to prepare for English proficiency tests.
The second study titled “the TOEIC® Test as an Exit Requirement in Universities and Colleges in Danang City, Vietnam: Challenges and Impacts” carried out in Vietnam by Thuy Nhan (2013). The researcher found that the policy to use TOEIC® to decide students’ graduation eligibility in Danang’s institutions has increasingly confirmed the gate-keeping role of the English language and accordingly, disadvantaged certain groups of students. There are many factors affecting to the effectiveness of the test and learning enhancement such as social and educational backgrounds and demands for learning English. The researcher pointed that the effectiveness of the policy in Danang City is yet to be seen. Therefore, English programs and teacher training should be modified in a way that could encourage learners’ production of the target language and make them have enough time and attention to improve English skills and practice for the English exit tests.
The third study is the one conducted by Hongli Li, Qi Zhong and Hoi K Suen (2012) titled “Students’ Perceptions of the Impact of the College English Test”. Based on evidence from the questionnaire survey, the researchers found out that the College English Test (CET) has a greater impact on students’ learning content than on their learning methods. In addition, students focused more on listening and reading than on writing and speaking. Moreover, although students’ self efficacy in regard to their overall English ability and to different English skills was increased as a result of preparing for or taking the CET, they felt more pressure and anxiety.
Besides, regarding affective impact of tests, in an extensive literature review, Kirkland (1971) concluded that tests had impact on some factors such as a student’s self-concept, motivation, level of aspiration, study practices, and anxiety. In particular, Harlen and Deakin-Crick (2003) reviewed the impact of tests on student motivation. They found that there is a complex interaction between motivation and other factors, such as effort, goal orientation, locus of control, self-efficacy, sense of self as a learner, self-esteem, self-regulation, and interest.
It can be seen that most studies have focused on academic factors, while students’ affective conditions have been somewhat neglected. As mentioned before, the study followed the study of Hongli Li, Qi Zhong and Hoi K Suen (2012) and investigated the VSTEP’s impacts on students’ learning in two ways: academic and affective. The academic impact relates to the VSTEP’s influence on “students’ English - learning behavior, as this pertains to learning content (i.e., what students study) and learning methods (i.e., how they study)”, whereas affective impact refers to the VSTEP’s influence on “students’ affective conditions, such as goal orientation, motivation, self-efficacy, and anxiety.” (Hongli Li, Qi Zhong and Hoi K Suen, 2012: 82).
 
THE PRESENT STUDY
 
Research questions
Research question 1: How does the VSTEP influence the students’ English learning behaviour in terms of learning content (i.e., what students study) and learning methods (i.e., how they study)?
Research question 2: How does the VSTEP influence the students’ affective conditions such as goal orientation, motivation, self-efficacy, and anxiety?
Participants
There were 150 first-year students at ULIS whose major was English. The first year students were chosen as participants of the study because of two reasons. Firstly, the researcher would like to explore impacts of the VSTEP on the first year students’ English learning at ULIS so that even better English learning/ teaching assistance to the first year students could be provided. Secondly, the VSTEP is a new test used as a graduation requirement for students at ULIS. The first year students were those who just entered the university and approached the test for the first time. They all have not taken the test before. Moreover, English levels among the first-year students were surely different. Therefore, they would have different attitudes toward the test.
Data Collection Procedures
To collect data for the study, a questionnaire was used. This study replicated and modified six tables from the research titled “Students’ perceptions of the Impact of the College English Test” conducted by Li, Zhong and Suen (2012) at a university in Beijing because of similar context and goal. There were some small changes compared to the original version such as: adding part I of students’ general information, changing CET into VSTEP and rewriting the phrase “as a result of preparing or taking CET” itno “as a result of preparing for VSTEP”.
The pilot questionnaire used for this survey is written in English and directly delivered to a sample of 50 first-year students at ULIS to get an insight into the possible issues such as comprehension of questionnaire items or response. After collecting delivered questionnaire, the researcher may edit the questionnaire based on students’ responses.
Then, copies of the final questionnaire were distributed to 150 first year students at ULIS with the guide of the researcher. The research delivered the questionnaire to students both in class and at their hostel. After collecting the entire delivered questionnaire, the researcher found that 20 out of 150 questionnaires were invalid.
 
SURVEY RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
 
Characteristics of the first year students
Based on students’ responses from the questionnaire, students’ English language background is different (7-year English program: 40.8%, 10-year English program: 36%, 12-year English program: 23%). Besides, students’ results at Entrance Test of English Proficiency taken place by VNU were high, ranging from 51 to 78 in total of 80. This implicates that their English proficiency was good at the starting point. Because of a new test, over one tenth of the first year students reported that they were not informed of the VSTEP as an English exit requirement. However, among students who were informed of VSTEP as an exit requirement test, over 91% of students reported that the required level/ score of the VSTEP was achievable for them. Most of them reported that they are willing to take the VSTEP and they will put every their effort to prepare and learn English for this test with the best result as they can.
Impacts of the VSTEP on students’ learning
Academic impacts: learning content and learning methods
Table 1. Impact of the VSTEP on students’ learning content

Items SA
%
A
%
D
%
SD
%
I will work hard to practice English speaking 29.2 61.5 6.9 2.3
I will spend more time practicing English listening 26.2 61.5 10.8 1.5
I pay more attention to the words that are labelled as VSTEP vocabulary. 20 65.4 10 4.6
I am more attentive in the class if the teacher lectures on contents related to the VSTEP. 17.7 54.6 22.3 5.4
I pay more attention to the content that is related to the VSTEP. 16.9 64.6 15.4 3.1

 
It can be seen that over 90% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that they would work hard to practice English. Over 87% of students agreed or strongly agreed that they would spend more time practicing English listening. The high percentages of SA and A responses related to speaking-listening skills show that speaking cannot be separated from listening and most of the first year students focus more on these two skills.
Similarly, over 72% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that they would be more attentive in class if the teacher lectured on content related to the VSTEP. Likewise, over 81% of students agreed or strongly agreed that they would pay more attention to the content that is related to the VSTEP, which again tends to confirm the VSTEP’s influence on their learning content. Furthermore, over 85% the students agreed or strongly agreed that they would pay more attention to the words labelled as VSTEP vocabulary.
In general, current curriculum at ULIS is completely suitable for students to take the VSTEP because the VSTEP focuses on four English skills: reading, speaking, writing and listening while students at ULIS also have two first years to learn these communicative skills. They have chance to practice the VSTEP before taking the test because teachers often give them tasks and activities related to the VSTEP. Therefore, students could know what to study in order to prepare for the VSTEP well and improve their English learning.
Table 2. Impact of the VSTEP on students’ learning methods

Items SA
%
A
%
D
%
SD
%
I will take the VSTEP coaching classes. 14.6 63.1 19.2 3.1
I will buy or have bought VSTEP coaching materials. 7.7 68.5 20 3.8
I would like to try any learning methods that can help me perform better on the VSTEP. 25.4 55.4 15.4 3.8
Preparing for the VSTEP influences the way I learn English. 17 54.6 23.8 4.6

 
Table 2 presents that over 77% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that they would take the VSTEP coaching classes. More than two third of students would buy the VSTEP coaching materials. Over 80% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that they would try any learning method that might help them perform better on the VSTEP while over 71% of the students thought that preparing for the VSTEP influenced the way they learned English. Accordingly, table 1 and table 2 show that both students’ learning method and learning content are influenced by VSTEP.
Affective impacts: goal orientation, motivation, self-efficacy and anxiety
Table 3. Impact of the VSTEP on students’ goal orientation

Items SA
%
A
%
D
%
SD
%
Preparing for the VSTEP makes me have clearer goals in learning English. 18.5 50.8 22.3 8.5
To pass the VSTEP is my major driving force in learning English. 10.8 34.6 45.4 9.2
To pass the VSTEP is my major purpose for learning English. 7.7 20 56.2 16.2

 
Table 3 presents that over two third (69.3%) of the students agreed or strongly agreed that preparing for the VSTEP made them have clearer English-learning goals whereas nearly a half of of them (about 45%) agreed or strongly agreed that passing the VSTEP was their major driving force for learning English. However, only one fourth (27.7%) agreed or strongly agreed that passing the VSTEP was their major purpose for learning English. The data reveals that the VSTEP helps students set their learning goal and make them concentrate more on their English learning.
Table 4. Impact of the VSTEP on students’ motivation

Items SA
%
A
%
D
%
SD
%
Preparing for the VSTEP makes me more motivated to learn English. 12.3 62.3 19.2 6.2
I spend more time learning English because of preparing for the VSTEP. 10.8 46.9 35.4 6.9
In order to prepare for the VSTEP, I spend more time memorizing English words. 13.8 65.4 17.7 3.1
In order to prepare for the VSTEP, I spend more time watching English movies. 20.8 50.8 23.8 4.6
In order to prepare for the VSTEP, I spend more time listening to English broadcasts. 12.3 64.6 20 3.1
In order to prepare for the VSTEP, I spend more time practicing English–Vietnamese translation. 12.3 60.8 23.8 3.1
In order to prepare for the VSTEP, I spend more time practicing English writing. 16.9 66.2 13.1 3.8
In order to prepare for the VSTEP, I spend more time reading English newspapers. 7.7 54.6 33.1 4.6
Preparing for the VSTEP makes me pay more attention to English use in real life. 16.9 56.9 22.3 3.8
The VSTEP makes me feel that the English language is a very useful tool. 14.6 56.9 22.3 6.2
Preparing for the VSTEP makes me feel that learning English is more important. 14.6 53.1 26.9 5.4
In order to prepare for the VSTEP, I spend more time learning English and American literature. 6.2 58.5 27.7 7.7

 
In term of motivation, it can be seen that over 74% (about three fourth) of the students agreed or strongly agreed that preparing for the VSTEP made them more motivated to learn English. More than a half (57.7%) of them agreed or strongly agreed that they spent more time learning English because of preparing for the VSTEP. Over 71% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that the VSTEP made them feel that English was a very useful tool, and 67.7% of them agreed or strongly agreed that preparing for the VSTEP made them feel that English learning was more important.
However, according to students’ responses, the extra time that they would spend on specific language skills varied. For instance, nearly 80% of students agreed or strongly agreed that they would spend more time memorizing English words. In addition, over 71% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that they would spend more time watching English movies and more than 73% of them agreed or strongly agreed that they would spend more time practicing English-Vietnamese translation. Besides, approximately 77% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that they would spend more time listening to English broadcasts. This result shows that students may find listening skill difficult and need more time to practice. 62.3% of students reported that they would spend more time reading English newspapers. It seems that students learned English not only from books but also from other channels. Whereas approximately 65% of them agreed or strongly agreed that they would spend more time learning English and American literature.
Those who agreed or strongly agreed that preparing for the VSTEP made them pay more attention to English use in real life totalled 73.8%. In all specific language skills mentioned in this part, students seem to pay much more attention to writing skill when 83.1% of them agreed or strongly agreed that they would spend more time practicing English writing.
Table 5. Impact of the VSTEP on students’ self-efficacy

Items SA
%
A
%
D
%
SD
%
I feel more confident about my English-reading ability as a result of preparing for the VSTEP. 12.3 59.2 21.5 6.9
I feel more confident about my English-listening ability as a result of preparing for the VSTEP. 13.1 58.5 23.8 4.6
I feel more confident about my overall English
proficiency as a result of preparing for the VSTEP.
16.2 63.1 17.7 3.1
I feel more able to use English in real situations as a result of preparing for the VSTEP. 15.4 60.8 20.8 3.1
I feel more confident about my English-speaking
ability as a result of preparing for the VSTEP.
18.5 65.4 13.1 3.1
I feel more confident about my English-writing ability as a result of preparing for the VSTEP. 13.1 65.4 17.7 3.8

 
As shown in Table 5, over 71% of students agreed or strongly agreed that they felt more confident about their English reading and listening ability as a result of preparing for the VSTEP. In addition, over three fourth of students felt the same way about their writing ability and agreed or strongly agreed that they felt more able to use English in real situation as a result of preparing for the VSTEP. Table 4 showed that the students focused more on writing compared to other specific language skills. This may account for the reason why they felt more confident about their English-writing ability as a result of preparing for the VSTEP. Table 4 also presented that approximately three fourth of students agreed or strongly agreed that preparing for the VSTEP would make them pay more attention to English use in real life. Therefore, they felt more capable of using English in real situations as a result of preparing for the VSTEP. Besides, over 84% of students felt more confident about their English speaking ability as a result of preparing for the VSTEP. Nearly 80% of students agreed or strongly agreed that they felt more confident about their overall English proficiency as a result of preparing for the VSTEP. It is reasonable to surmise that VSTEP influences on students’ self-efficacy in all language skills, especially speaking and writing skill.
Table 6. Impact of the VSTEP on students’ anxiety

Items SA
%
A
%
D
%
SD
%
I am under greater pressure to learn English because of preparing for the VSTEP. 20.8 36.9 36.9 5.4
Preparing for the VSTEP makes me feel more anxious about learning English. 16.9 45.4 31.5 6.2
Preparing for the VSTEP makes me feel that I have failed in my efforts to learn English. 11.5 17.7 63.8 6.9
Preparing for the VSTEP makes me more frustrated with learning English. 6.2 27.7 57 9.2
I am more afraid of learning English because of preparing for the VSTEP. 8.5 26.9 53.1 11.5

 
Table 6 shows that over a half of the students (57.7%) agreed or strongly agreed that they were under greater pressure because of preparing for the VSTEP, and more than 62% agreed or strongly agreed that they felt more anxious about learning English as a result of preparing for the VSTEP. It might be that the VSTEP is used as an exit test, so it may put pressure on students. From the students’ responses, approximately 30% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that preparing for the VSTEP made them feel that they had failed in their efforts to learn English. Around one third of the students agreed or strongly agreed that they felt more frustrated with learning English and had become more afraid of learning English. This is somewhat in contrast with the increasing self-efficacy they reported in terms of their English ability, as illustrated in Table 5. It can be seen that in spite of students’ high confidence level, they still felt anxious due to the VSTEP exit requirement.
CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS
From evidence of the questionnaire survey in this study, the VSTEP seems to have had a pervasive impact on the participating students, both in terms of their English-learning behaviours and affective conditions. First, the VSTEP has a great impact on students’ learning behaviour referring to learning content and learning methods. The VSTEP seems to be effective in directing students’ attention to what they need to learn and how they study in order to pass it. Second, the VSTEP influences students’ affective conditions. In term of goal orientation and motivation, over two third of the students felt that the VSTEP had caused them to clarify their English learning goals, and about three fourth of the students were more motivated to put more effort to learn English. It showed that the students usually expressed their willingness to put their effort to learn all language skills. However, they seem to put more effort into writing skill than other communicative skills. Besides, the VSTEP also has great impact on students’ self-efficacy and anxiety. Approximately 80% of the students reported a higher level of self-efficacy in regard to their overall English ability and to different English skills, especially speaking and writing as a result of preparing for the VSTEP. Despite the increasing self-efficacy, however, almost 60% of the students reported that they felt more pressure and anxiety as a result of preparing for the VSTEP, and around one third of the students felt more frustrated with learning English and became more afraid of learning English.
As mentioned before, tests influence students’ learning on “both intended positive effects or unintended effects and perhaps negative effects” (Alderson & Wall, 1993; Bachman & Palmer, 1996; Cheng, Watanabe, & Curtis, 2004; Hughes, 2003). In the present study, the exit requirement of the VSTEP has brought about both positive and negative washback. Whereas most of the students were motivated to learn English as a result of preparing for the VSTEP, the VSTEP also made many of them feel more anxious about and frustrated with their efforts to learn English due to exit requirement.
Based on the findings of the study, some suggestions are made. Firstly, over one tenth of the first-year students reported that they were not informed of the VSTEP as an English exit requirement by their institution. Therefore, school administrators should take place workshops or issues manual about the VSTEP to inform the students of the VSTEP and its related information. Second, over three fourth of the students said that they would take the VSTEP coaching classes and buy the VSTEP coaching materials. Hence, it is necessary for the institution to provide funding for extra English classes or additional educational resources to enhance students’ learning before taking the test. This may raise their confidence level and decrease their anxiety towards the VSTEP.
This current study constitutes only a first step in investigating the impact of the VSTEP on the first year students’ English learning at ULIS. I employed single type of evidence which is questionnaire and relied on students’ self-reported responses at one university and investigated the impacts of the VSTEP on only the first year students’ English learning. Therefore, it is recommended that the follow-up studies should use other types of evidence and focus on different types of participants and various settings in order to explore the overall impact of VSTEP on both learning and teaching aspects.
INTRODUCTION
 
In Vietnam, the teaching activities in classes are not delivered in an effective way for students to achieve sufficient levels of competence to pass the certifications required for recruitment (Hoang, 2011). Ha (2007) argues that the level of communicative competence in English of most Vietnamese employees are still very low, and many freshly graduated students cannot get jobs in foreign companies because of the English language requirements. Pham (2004) estimated that in a class of fifty English major learners, fewer than ten graduates have the sufficient English skills for jobs such as interpreters, translators, tour guides or teachers of English.
Moreover, English has played a predominant role in the foreign language teaching program at tertiary level in Vietnam for a long period (Hoang Van Van, 2008). In 1986, opening the door of Vietnam to the world and under the impact of globalisation and internationalisation in higher education lead to the demand for enhancing English language teaching and learning which is one of the most important purposes of higher education renovation in Vietnam.
The current issues point to the fact that Vietnam should upgrade the currently low English teaching and English use standards in order to catch up with the fast globalisation process, sizable inputs and major changes. Therefore, in early 2008, Vietnamese Ministry of Education & Training (MOET) gave an official instruction, requiring universities and colleges to articulate their graduation standards, among which is the English requirement, by the end of the same year.
This paper aims at investigating the impacts of VSTEP as a graduation requirement on the first year students at ULIS, VNU.
 
LITERATURE REVIEW
 
The introduction of the VSTEP as an English certificate exit requirement at ULIS
It has been obvious that many tertiary institutions integrated graduation standard control into study programmes which was essential for assuring the quality of institutions’ qualifications. Most universities in Vietnam adopted standardized English proficiency tests such as TOEIC) and TOEFL, either self-developed tests or external public tests, as the means of standards control. ULIS is an example of this policy. The institution has newly applied a national English proficiency test called Vietnamese Standardized Test of English Proficiency (VSTEP) and required all the students to submit evidence of the required English level measured by the VSTEP for graduation.
The VSTEP is a standardized test designed to measure the English proficiency of undergraduate students at ULIS. The test is based on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) and be relevant to the context of English use in Vietnam. The test targets level 3 to level 5. The students of ULIS need to achieve level 5 which is equivalent to the level C1 of the CEFR test. Like most of the CEFR - based test, VSTEP consists of four sections: listening, reading, writing and speaking. The innovation - setting the VSTEP as a graduation requirement – is expected to have impacts on what and how teachers teach and what and how students learn, thereby promoting students’ English skills development.
What is impact?
Recently, in language testing research, some researchers have distinguished between ‘washback’ and ‘impact’. According to Wall (1997), test impact is “any of the effects that a test may have on individuals, policies or practices, within the classroom, the school, the educational system or society as a whole” whereas washback is “the effects of tests on teaching and learning” (p. 291). Bachman and Palmer (1996) considered washback as one dimension of test impact; thus, the impact of the test is divided two levels: the micro level, such as the effect of a test on individual students and teachers, and the macro level, such as the impact on society and its educational systems.
At micro level, since the 1990s, the term ‘washback’ (Alderson & Wall, 1993) in the field of applied linguistics and ‘backwash’ (Biggs, 1996) in general education has been used to refer to the impact which occurs in the form of teaching and learning directed towards a test, in terms of both intended positive effects or unintended effects and perhaps negative effects (Alderson & Wall, 1993; Bachman & Palmer, 1996; Cheng, Watanabe, & Curtis, 2004; Hughes, 2003). Concurring with this, Taylor (2005) also said that washback can be considered positive (beneficial) or negative (harmful). Positive washback encourages good teaching and learning practices while negative washback encourages bad teaching and learning practices.
In a broader way, Bachman and Palmer (1996) argued that washback was a more complex phenomenon than simply the effect of a test on teaching and learning. They think the impact of a test should be evaluated with reference to the contextual variables of society's goals and values, the educational system in which the test is used, and the potential outcomes of its use.
Despite different terms defined by different researchers, they all referred to
different aspects of the same phenomenon. Research studies showed that impact/ washback was an educational phenomenon related to (1) the relationship between teaching, learning and testing, and the relationship between different curriculum components, and to (2) curriculum change and innovation.
The term ‘washback’at a micro level used interchangeably with impact was chosen in this study as it covers the impact of the VSTEP as a graduation requirement on the first year students’ learning at ULIS.
Impacts of some English tests as a graduation requirement
There have been many studies related to the today’s trend in language testing field which are using English proficiency tests as a graduation requirement for students. Among several studies, there are three studies which are worth focusing on in more detail.
The first study was conducted in context of Taiwan titled “The impact of implementing English proficiency tests as a graduation requirement” at Taiwanese universities of technology by Hui-Fen Hsu (2009). The researcher explored the impacts of a new educational policy on two groups of university students: non-English major students who had to pass one of a set of English proficiency tests at a specified level as a graduation requirement and major English students who did not prescribe any English graduation requirement. The results of the study showed that washback on students’ learning related to three aspects: students’ learning context, students’ perception of the impact of the test and their learning. With respect to the students’ learning contexts, the implementation of English proficiency tests as a graduation requirement did have a minimal washback effect on the classroom activities and it did not encourage more English-medium activities outside class. With regard to students’ perceptions of the impact of English proficiency tests, although students really did not like examinations, examinations seemed to be one of their key motivations for learning English, indicating the important role of examinations in students’ lives. With regard to students’ learning, students who had to comply with the graduation regulation seemed not to be making a concerted effort to prepare for English proficiency tests.
The second study titled “the TOEIC® Test as an Exit Requirement in Universities and Colleges in Danang City, Vietnam: Challenges and Impacts” carried out in Vietnam by Thuy Nhan (2013). The researcher found that the policy to use TOEIC® to decide students’ graduation eligibility in Danang’s institutions has increasingly confirmed the gate-keeping role of the English language and accordingly, disadvantaged certain groups of students. There are many factors affecting to the effectiveness of the test and learning enhancement such as social and educational backgrounds and demands for learning English. The researcher pointed that the effectiveness of the policy in Danang City is yet to be seen. Therefore, English programs and teacher training should be modified in a way that could encourage learners’ production of the target language and make them have enough time and attention to improve English skills and practice for the English exit tests.
The third study is the one conducted by Hongli Li, Qi Zhong and Hoi K Suen (2012) titled “Students’ Perceptions of the Impact of the College English Test”. Based on evidence from the questionnaire survey, the researchers found out that the College English Test (CET) has a greater impact on students’ learning content than on their learning methods. In addition, students focused more on listening and reading than on writing and speaking. Moreover, although students’ self efficacy in regard to their overall English ability and to different English skills was increased as a result of preparing for or taking the CET, they felt more pressure and anxiety.
Besides, regarding affective impact of tests, in an extensive literature review, Kirkland (1971) concluded that tests had impact on some factors such as a student’s self-concept, motivation, level of aspiration, study practices, and anxiety. In particular, Harlen and Deakin-Crick (2003) reviewed the impact of tests on student motivation. They found that there is a complex interaction between motivation and other factors, such as effort, goal orientation, locus of control, self-efficacy, sense of self as a learner, self-esteem, self-regulation, and interest.
It can be seen that most studies have focused on academic factors, while students’ affective conditions have been somewhat neglected. As mentioned before, the study followed the study of Hongli Li, Qi Zhong and Hoi K Suen (2012) and investigated the VSTEP’s impacts on students’ learning in two ways: academic and affective. The academic impact relates to the VSTEP’s influence on “students’ English - learning behavior, as this pertains to learning content (i.e., what students study) and learning methods (i.e., how they study)”, whereas affective impact refers to the VSTEP’s influence on “students’ affective conditions, such as goal orientation, motivation, self-efficacy, and anxiety.” (Hongli Li, Qi Zhong and Hoi K Suen, 2012: 82).
 
THE PRESENT STUDY
 
Research questions
Research question 1: How does the VSTEP influence the students’ English learning behaviour in terms of learning content (i.e., what students study) and learning methods (i.e., how they study)?
Research question 2: How does the VSTEP influence the students’ affective conditions such as goal orientation, motivation, self-efficacy, and anxiety?
Participants
There were 150 first-year students at ULIS whose major was English. The first year students were chosen as participants of the study because of two reasons. Firstly, the researcher would like to explore impacts of the VSTEP on the first year students’ English learning at ULIS so that even better English learning/ teaching assistance to the first year students could be provided. Secondly, the VSTEP is a new test used as a graduation requirement for students at ULIS. The first year students were those who just entered the university and approached the test for the first time. They all have not taken the test before. Moreover, English levels among the first-year students were surely different. Therefore, they would have different attitudes toward the test.
Data Collection Procedures
To collect data for the study, a questionnaire was used. This study replicated and modified six tables from the research titled “Students’ perceptions of the Impact of the College English Test” conducted by Li, Zhong and Suen (2012) at a university in Beijing because of similar context and goal. There were some small changes compared to the original version such as: adding part I of students’ general information, changing CET into VSTEP and rewriting the phrase “as a result of preparing or taking CET” itno “as a result of preparing for VSTEP”.
The pilot questionnaire used for this survey is written in English and directly delivered to a sample of 50 first-year students at ULIS to get an insight into the possible issues such as comprehension of questionnaire items or response. After collecting delivered questionnaire, the researcher may edit the questionnaire based on students’ responses.
Then, copies of the final questionnaire were distributed to 150 first year students at ULIS with the guide of the researcher. The research delivered the questionnaire to students both in class and at their hostel. After collecting the entire delivered questionnaire, the researcher found that 20 out of 150 questionnaires were invalid.
 
SURVEY RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
 
Characteristics of the first year students
Based on students’ responses from the questionnaire, students’ English language background is different (7-year English program: 40.8%, 10-year English program: 36%, 12-year English program: 23%). Besides, students’ results at Entrance Test of English Proficiency taken place by VNU were high, ranging from 51 to 78 in total of 80. This implicates that their English proficiency was good at the starting point. Because of a new test, over one tenth of the first year students reported that they were not informed of the VSTEP as an English exit requirement. However, among students who were informed of VSTEP as an exit requirement test, over 91% of students reported that the required level/ score of the VSTEP was achievable for them. Most of them reported that they are willing to take the VSTEP and they will put every their effort to prepare and learn English for this test with the best result as they can.
Impacts of the VSTEP on students’ learning
Academic impacts: learning content and learning methods
Table 1. Impact of the VSTEP on students’ learning content

Items SA
%
A
%
D
%
SD
%
I will work hard to practice English speaking 29.2 61.5 6.9 2.3
I will spend more time practicing English listening 26.2 61.5 10.8 1.5
I pay more attention to the words that are labelled as VSTEP vocabulary. 20 65.4 10 4.6
I am more attentive in the class if the teacher lectures on contents related to the VSTEP. 17.7 54.6 22.3 5.4
I pay more attention to the content that is related to the VSTEP. 16.9 64.6 15.4 3.1

 
It can be seen that over 90% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that they would work hard to practice English. Over 87% of students agreed or strongly agreed that they would spend more time practicing English listening. The high percentages of SA and A responses related to speaking-listening skills show that speaking cannot be separated from listening and most of the first year students focus more on these two skills.
Similarly, over 72% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that they would be more attentive in class if the teacher lectured on content related to the VSTEP. Likewise, over 81% of students agreed or strongly agreed that they would pay more attention to the content that is related to the VSTEP, which again tends to confirm the VSTEP’s influence on their learning content. Furthermore, over 85% the students agreed or strongly agreed that they would pay more attention to the words labelled as VSTEP vocabulary.
In general, current curriculum at ULIS is completely suitable for students to take the VSTEP because the VSTEP focuses on four English skills: reading, speaking, writing and listening while students at ULIS also have two first years to learn these communicative skills. They have chance to practice the VSTEP before taking the test because teachers often give them tasks and activities related to the VSTEP. Therefore, students could know what to study in order to prepare for the VSTEP well and improve their English learning.
Table 2. Impact of the VSTEP on students’ learning methods

Items SA
%
A
%
D
%
SD
%
I will take the VSTEP coaching classes. 14.6 63.1 19.2 3.1
I will buy or have bought VSTEP coaching materials. 7.7 68.5 20 3.8
I would like to try any learning methods that can help me perform better on the VSTEP. 25.4 55.4 15.4 3.8
Preparing for the VSTEP influences the way I learn English. 17 54.6 23.8 4.6

 
Table 2 presents that over 77% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that they would take the VSTEP coaching classes. More than two third of students would buy the VSTEP coaching materials. Over 80% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that they would try any learning method that might help them perform better on the VSTEP while over 71% of the students thought that preparing for the VSTEP influenced the way they learned English. Accordingly, table 1 and table 2 show that both students’ learning method and learning content are influenced by VSTEP.
Affective impacts: goal orientation, motivation, self-efficacy and anxiety
Table 3. Impact of the VSTEP on students’ goal orientation

Items SA
%
A
%
D
%
SD
%
Preparing for the VSTEP makes me have clearer goals in learning English. 18.5 50.8 22.3 8.5
To pass the VSTEP is my major driving force in learning English. 10.8 34.6 45.4 9.2
To pass the VSTEP is my major purpose for learning English. 7.7 20 56.2 16.2

 
Table 3 presents that over two third (69.3%) of the students agreed or strongly agreed that preparing for the VSTEP made them have clearer English-learning goals whereas nearly a half of of them (about 45%) agreed or strongly agreed that passing the VSTEP was their major driving force for learning English. However, only one fourth (27.7%) agreed or strongly agreed that passing the VSTEP was their major purpose for learning English. The data reveals that the VSTEP helps students set their learning goal and make them concentrate more on their English learning.
Table 4. Impact of the VSTEP on students’ motivation

Items SA
%
A
%
D
%
SD
%
Preparing for the VSTEP makes me more motivated to learn English. 12.3 62.3 19.2 6.2
I spend more time learning English because of preparing for the VSTEP. 10.8 46.9 35.4 6.9
In order to prepare for the VSTEP, I spend more time memorizing English words. 13.8 65.4 17.7 3.1
In order to prepare for the VSTEP, I spend more time watching English movies. 20.8 50.8 23.8 4.6
In order to prepare for the VSTEP, I spend more time listening to English broadcasts. 12.3 64.6 20 3.1
In order to prepare for the VSTEP, I spend more time practicing English–Vietnamese translation. 12.3 60.8 23.8 3.1
In order to prepare for the VSTEP, I spend more time practicing English writing. 16.9 66.2 13.1 3.8
In order to prepare for the VSTEP, I spend more time reading English newspapers. 7.7 54.6 33.1 4.6
Preparing for the VSTEP makes me pay more attention to English use in real life. 16.9 56.9 22.3 3.8
The VSTEP makes me feel that the English language is a very useful tool. 14.6 56.9 22.3 6.2
Preparing for the VSTEP makes me feel that learning English is more important. 14.6 53.1 26.9 5.4
In order to prepare for the VSTEP, I spend more time learning English and American literature. 6.2 58.5 27.7 7.7

 
In term of motivation, it can be seen that over 74% (about three fourth) of the students agreed or strongly agreed that preparing for the VSTEP made them more motivated to learn English. More than a half (57.7%) of them agreed or strongly agreed that they spent more time learning English because of preparing for the VSTEP. Over 71% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that the VSTEP made them feel that English was a very useful tool, and 67.7% of them agreed or strongly agreed that preparing for the VSTEP made them feel that English learning was more important.
However, according to students’ responses, the extra time that they would spend on specific language skills varied. For instance, nearly 80% of students agreed or strongly agreed that they would spend more time memorizing English words. In addition, over 71% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that they would spend more time watching English movies and more than 73% of them agreed or strongly agreed that they would spend more time practicing English-Vietnamese translation. Besides, approximately 77% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that they would spend more time listening to English broadcasts. This result shows that students may find listening skill difficult and need more time to practice. 62.3% of students reported that they would spend more time reading English newspapers. It seems that students learned English not only from books but also from other channels. Whereas approximately 65% of them agreed or strongly agreed that they would spend more time learning English and American literature.
Those who agreed or strongly agreed that preparing for the VSTEP made them pay more attention to English use in real life totalled 73.8%. In all specific language skills mentioned in this part, students seem to pay much more attention to writing skill when 83.1% of them agreed or strongly agreed that they would spend more time practicing English writing.
Table 5. Impact of the VSTEP on students’ self-efficacy

Items SA
%
A
%
D
%
SD
%
I feel more confident about my English-reading ability as a result of preparing for the VSTEP. 12.3 59.2 21.5 6.9
I feel more confident about my English-listening ability as a result of preparing for the VSTEP. 13.1 58.5 23.8 4.6
I feel more confident about my overall English
proficiency as a result of preparing for the VSTEP.
16.2 63.1 17.7 3.1
I feel more able to use English in real situations as a result of preparing for the VSTEP. 15.4 60.8 20.8 3.1
I feel more confident about my English-speaking
ability as a result of preparing for the VSTEP.
18.5 65.4 13.1 3.1
I feel more confident about my English-writing ability as a result of preparing for the VSTEP. 13.1 65.4 17.7 3.8

 
As shown in Table 5, over 71% of students agreed or strongly agreed that they felt more confident about their English reading and listening ability as a result of preparing for the VSTEP. In addition, over three fourth of students felt the same way about their writing ability and agreed or strongly agreed that they felt more able to use English in real situation as a result of preparing for the VSTEP. Table 4 showed that the students focused more on writing compared to other specific language skills. This may account for the reason why they felt more confident about their English-writing ability as a result of preparing for the VSTEP. Table 4 also presented that approximately three fourth of students agreed or strongly agreed that preparing for the VSTEP would make them pay more attention to English use in real life. Therefore, they felt more capable of using English in real situations as a result of preparing for the VSTEP. Besides, over 84% of students felt more confident about their English speaking ability as a result of preparing for the VSTEP. Nearly 80% of students agreed or strongly agreed that they felt more confident about their overall English proficiency as a result of preparing for the VSTEP. It is reasonable to surmise that VSTEP influences on students’ self-efficacy in all language skills, especially speaking and writing skill.
Table 6. Impact of the VSTEP on students’ anxiety

Items SA
%
A
%
D
%
SD
%
I am under greater pressure to learn English because of preparing for the VSTEP. 20.8 36.9 36.9 5.4
Preparing for the VSTEP makes me feel more anxious about learning English. 16.9 45.4 31.5 6.2
Preparing for the VSTEP makes me feel that I have failed in my efforts to learn English. 11.5 17.7 63.8 6.9
Preparing for the VSTEP makes me more frustrated with learning English. 6.2 27.7 57 9.2
I am more afraid of learning English because of preparing for the VSTEP. 8.5 26.9 53.1 11.5

 
Table 6 shows that over a half of the students (57.7%) agreed or strongly agreed that they were under greater pressure because of preparing for the VSTEP, and more than 62% agreed or strongly agreed that they felt more anxious about learning English as a result of preparing for the VSTEP. It might be that the VSTEP is used as an exit test, so it may put pressure on students. From the students’ responses, approximately 30% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that preparing for the VSTEP made them feel that they had failed in their efforts to learn English. Around one third of the students agreed or strongly agreed that they felt more frustrated with learning English and had become more afraid of learning English. This is somewhat in contrast with the increasing self-efficacy they reported in terms of their English ability, as illustrated in Table 5. It can be seen that in spite of students’ high confidence level, they still felt anxious due to the VSTEP exit requirement.
CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS
From evidence of the questionnaire survey in this study, the VSTEP seems to have had a pervasive impact on the participating students, both in terms of their English-learning behaviours and affective conditions. First, the VSTEP has a great impact on students’ learning behaviour referring to learning content and learning methods. The VSTEP seems to be effective in directing students’ attention to what they need to learn and how they study in order to pass it. Second, the VSTEP influences students’ affective conditions. In term of goal orientation and motivation, over two third of the students felt that the VSTEP had caused them to clarify their English learning goals, and about three fourth of the students were more motivated to put more effort to learn English. It showed that the students usually expressed their willingness to put their effort to learn all language skills. However, they seem to put more effort into writing skill than other communicative skills. Besides, the VSTEP also has great impact on students’ self-efficacy and anxiety. Approximately 80% of the students reported a higher level of self-efficacy in regard to their overall English ability and to different English skills, especially speaking and writing as a result of preparing for the VSTEP. Despite the increasing self-efficacy, however, almost 60% of the students reported that they felt more pressure and anxiety as a result of preparing for the VSTEP, and around one third of the students felt more frustrated with learning English and became more afraid of learning English.
As mentioned before, tests influence students’ learning on “both intended positive effects or unintended effects and perhaps negative effects” (Alderson & Wall, 1993; Bachman & Palmer, 1996; Cheng, Watanabe, & Curtis, 2004; Hughes, 2003). In the present study, the exit requirement of the VSTEP has brought about both positive and negative washback. Whereas most of the students were motivated to learn English as a result of preparing for the VSTEP, the VSTEP also made many of them feel more anxious about and frustrated with their efforts to learn English due to exit requirement.
Based on the findings of the study, some suggestions are made. Firstly, over one tenth of the first-year students reported that they were not informed of the VSTEP as an English exit requirement by their institution. Therefore, school administrators should take place workshops or issues manual about the VSTEP to inform the students of the VSTEP and its related information. Second, over three fourth of the students said that they would take the VSTEP coaching classes and buy the VSTEP coaching materials. Hence, it is necessary for the institution to provide funding for extra English classes or additional educational resources to enhance students’ learning before taking the test. This may raise their confidence level and decrease their anxiety towards the VSTEP.
This current study constitutes only a first step in investigating the impact of the VSTEP on the first year students’ English learning at ULIS. I employed single type of evidence which is questionnaire and relied on students’ self-reported responses at one university and investigated the impacts of the VSTEP on only the first year students’ English learning. Therefore, it is recommended that the follow-up studies should use other types of evidence and focus on different types of participants and various settings in order to explore the overall impact of VSTEP on both learning and teaching aspects.
e main part of this paper examines in detail the impacts of the VSTEP test on the learning of English of the first year students at ULIS. Finally, the discussion section evaluates the efficiency of the policy, followed by some recommendations.

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