The annual ritual of the entrance exam is once again upon Japan. Though the nature of knowledge, skills and social usefulness has changed tremendously over the past decades, Japan’s exam system has scarcely changed at all.
The entrance exam system needs substantial, forward-looking changes before other parts of the education system can be reformed. Without changing these exams, other meaningful reforms are unlikely to take place.
The exams still largely focus on testing what knowledge students have acquired, rather than looking at aptitude and potential. Unfortunately what students can acquire as memorized information and their test-taking skills at the age of 18 will be of little help later in a fast-changing society.
Some universities have started to look at more important skills in their exams, but the ability to think critically, or other such skills, is not a large enough part of exams yet.
The exam’s emphasis on quantity of knowledge rather than deeper comprehension or mastery of broader potential locks much of primary, junior and high school education into a test-preparation agenda. Textbooks, curricula and teaching methods are evaluated not on their ultimate value or how well they develop learners, but on how many students they get into competitive universities. Developing lifelong learners hardly enters the equation.
The knowledge, competency and mind-set needed in the future society and workplace have evolved tremendously in recent years. Memorizing basic information, for example, is no longer needed when most information can be found online. However, Japan’s exams have remained largely the same. A more careful consideration of what knowledge is most valuable and useful would steer the exams in more productive directions.
Alternative methods of evaluating students are desperately needed. Some schools allow interviews, recommendations and submissions of work such as essays or creative projects to give a broader picture of the individual applying. Those methods take time and effort to evaluate, but are more likely to provide a meaningful picture of a student than the ability to sit in a chair for a day and answer multiple-choice questions.
Taking pressure off students by allowing more chances to sit exams would also help immensely.
Moreover, the expectation that all students should enter college at exactly 18 and graduate at 22 also needs to be changed — by employers, schools and parents. Young people mature at different ages and should pursue different experiences, even taking off time or studying other subjects before applying.
Japan’s education system is faltering. To re-strengthen it, changes should start at the center of the system — the university entrance exams. Entrance exams should decide which students are best suited for which university department in new and better ways.
Whether the exam system can be changed will be a test for the entire country.