Phil Roeland

The magical land

Where no student fails an exam

Exam are spoken or written tests of knowledge, designed to find out if students have a good grasp of the materials that were taught during the previous year or semester. Most people consider exams to be an important part of the process of educating students. Getting good grades is usually important as well. Indeed, failing exams in a Western country can have dire consequences for your studies, your future job opportunities, and your whole life. Places where it is impossible to fail exams only exist in the students’ wildest imagination. Surely no place on Earth can be that accommodating. Well, think again, there is such a place and it is called Thailand.

Yes, dear readers, students in Thailand simply cannot fail exams. This probably comes as a very big surprise for the people unfamiliar with the Thai situation, but believe me, it is true. Well, it is still true at the time of writing, but maybe not for long anymore. On September 29, I read an article in the Bangkok Post entitled “Repeat class threat for students”. Let me give you the gist and a few personal comments.

“The Basic Education Commission has approved a proposal that public primary and secondary schools nationwide should once again be able to make students who perform poorly repeat the same class the next year.”

To me and my slightly prejudiced Western mindset, this is no more than basic common sense. I was rather surprised when I first learned that Thai (elementary and secondary) schools were unable to make students repeat the same class if their results were unacceptable. Surely everyone can see the logic behind this new move. I read on and was quite surprised to read that “the move (…) was met with concern by academics worried about the possible psychological and social effect on failed pupils.” I wonder who those academics are. Surely they can’t be people who want Thai students to perform well based on merit and obtain a worthy degree. After all, what is the value of a degree if no one can fail? In my opinion, it’s not even worth the paper it’s printed on. But no, the academics don’t see it that way. I guess I know why. It’s culture.

Thailand is a society where gaining and losing face is accorded an enormous importance. Now, we can’t have little Somchai fail his exams, can we? What would the family, neighbours and friends think? They might think he is not so gifted after all. It would be a massive loss of face for the student having to repeat a year and his parents would equally lose face in the eyes of the rest of the world (i.e. Thailand). We can’t have that, can we? The fact that little Somchai might be lazy and stupid isn’t even considered. His teacher(s) would probably lose face as well, because they could be fingered as the real culprit(s) behind little Somchai’s poor performance.

Thai teachers are probably accustomed to this situation by now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if foreign teachers get a bit frustrated when they can’t fail students who can barely write their name in English or can’t even answer the simplest of questions. Not even the ones who deliberately refuse to study in order to pass a fairly simple exam. Hence the ubiquitous multiple choice grammar tests where the only requirement to take it is capability of ticking a box or circling a letter.

Mind you, not everyone will fail if the new system gets implemented. “Primary and secondary pupils with a grade point average (GPA) of under 1.00 and who have shown bad and irresponsible behaviour throughout the year should be failed and made to repeat (...)” Sounds logical to me. What is truly incredible is the fact that right now students with not only an amazingly low GPA (by the way, the maximum GPA is 4.00), but also severe behavioural problems still pass! Not for long anymore. Things are finally going to change.

Unfortunately, my hopes were instantly crushed by the last four words of the previous sentence, namely: “(…) if the parents agreed.” Can you believe it? I can’t really see what the fuss is all about. The proposal is already dead in the water. Schools can make a student repeat a year if the parents agree. What kind of wishful thinking is that? What kind of Thai parent would agree to have the apple of their eye – even if they are a spoilt, lazy, or retarded brat – repeat a year and become the scorn of the rest of the world? No parent, that’s the answer and also the end of the educational reform. I can’t understand why they bothered at all to launch this proposal when they plan to provide a loophole bigger than the hole in the ozone layer.

By the way, this proposal was launched following “complaints that the quality of education had fallen over three decades of leniency when schools would not let students fail for fear of being accused of not doing their job properly.” That didn’t exactly surprise me. And there we go again; the ‘losing-face’ devil rears its ugly head again. I agree that it is a school’s responsibility to provide a decent education and that teachers should do their utmost to help students master the subject matter that is being taught. On the other hand, it is the student’s responsibility to act seriously and responsibly and study from time to time, even if it isn’t really ‘sanuk’ (fun). Furthermore, it’s the parents responsibility to somewhat supervise the students’ efforts.

I couldn’t agree more that if the proportion of failed students is unusually high, there may be a problem with the teacher involved, or the teaching materials might not be of the appropriate level. No student should be the victim of an inadequate educational system or a badly designed curriculum. But what has been going on for decades, namely the dumbing down of the exams so that every student can pass, is definitely not the solution to the problem.

Again, what’s the value of an education and a degree if it’s impossible to fail? The country’s educational policy will become the laughing stock of the rest of the academic world, and rightly so. Thai graduates will have a hard time finding a good job on the international job market because most personnel managers know that a Thai degree doesn’t say much about the capabilities of an individual.

Finally, will this proposal – if it ever takes effect - change the way things are done in the Kingdom? Probably not. Most Thais are here to stay. The majority of them will find a job with a local company that doesn’t care whether the applicant has had a Thai or Western-style education. A degree is a degree, never mind how easy is was to obtain it. Not being able to fail exams is probably a deeply ingrained cultural thing, and Thais will shrug off the scorn and derision of the international academic community. After all, this is an internal affair and foreigners shouldn’t criticise the Thai way of doing things.

= = =

This newspaper article and the discussed proposal were about the primary and secondary school system. I wondered if this impossible-to-fail rule also affected higher education. As I’m not completely familiar with what goes on at university level, I asked half a dozen of my university students. These students usually come to the language school where I work in order to perfect their already nearly impeccable English. They all love speaking to foreigners, listening to the news in English, writing essays and reading English poetry. I asked half a dozen students about the grading system at their respective universities and the (im)possibility to fail or having to repeat a year.

As I had expected, every single one of them knew the rules about grades, passing and failing by heart, and they could all explain it briefly and clearly in academic English without the slightest of hesitations. Some even offered to write a paper about the subject or give a class presentation, but I respectfully declined their offer. I reckoned Thailand’s finest had more pressing matters to attend to than explain the gist of their grades in minute detail to a foreign ignoramus. After all, these youths all have a high workload and extremely difficult exams to deal with. That’s why most of them hardly ever go out and have no social life at all. I can remember one of my students falling asleep every time she came to class. This was because she never went to bed earlier than 6 AM. She stayed up every night to study and prepare assignments.

Thai university students are basically concerned with one thing only: studying hard and obtaining excellent grades. They never waste time on their appearance, esp. not the girls. You’ll never see Thai girls wasting time to make sure their hair is well brushed or their make-up is well applied. When they go to class – and, truth be told, they hardly ever skip classes – they only take the basic necessities with them, i.e. course book, pencil and paper. They usually leave their mobile phones at home in order not to be disturbed, and if they do bring them into the classroom, they will invariably switch them off and never use them during a class, not even for texting. The small talk and chitchat before and after class is always about the subject that is taught and strategies to score well on tests. They will never cheat on exams, as they consider it uncool.

Anyway, I didn’t need a five-page essay or a one-hour presentation from these fine students to explain to me how good and difficult the Thai university system is. I asked them to tell me briefly about the situation where they studied, and these are a few of the explanations the different students came up with. They were never contradictory and always crystal clear. Here is a summary of what they told me:

• If you get bad grades, you have to repeat the year.
• If you get bad grades, you have to repeat the subject(s).
• If you get bad grades, you don’t have to repeat the year.
• If your overall grades are lower than GPA 2.00, you cannot go to the next year.
• You have to retire (sic) – i.e. stop studying - if your GPA is under 2.00.
• You cannot go to the next year if your GPA is lower than 2.00 for more than one or two consecutive terms.
• You cannot go to the next year if you have an F for any or every subject.
• If you have an F, you have to repeat that particular subject, but cannot go to the next year.
• You only have to repeat a subject if you get an F and you can go to the next year.

Admit it, it can’t get any clearer than this, can it? I was completely enlightened, and I hope the same can be said for all of you readers. Anyway, there is no need to worry about the importance and quality of a Thai degree. Academics from all around the world acknowledge that Thailand has one of the toughest systems in the world, so obtaining a degree from a Thai university commands the highest respect.


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