The Liberal Democratic Party’s panel on education has announced it will propose that all students in Japan take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) to enter and exit university. The new proposal also includes a requirement for all aspirants to central government positions to take the exam from fiscal 2015.
As part of efforts to improve the low level of English in Japan, the proposal, with a proposed ¥1 trillion budget, is directed toward a crucial issue for Japan’s future. However, the proposal offers no genuinely effective measures for improving the teaching and learning of English in Japan.
That need for better English in Japan is urgent. According to data from the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which makes and administers the TOEFL exam, out of 33 Asian countries in 2011, only Cambodia and Laos ranked lower than Japan. Those results are a national shame that holds Japan back from more fully engaging with an increasingly international world.
But Japan desperately needs to improve how English is taught, not how it is tested.
Imposing TOEFL as a crucial requirement for educational and professional advancement may only exacerbate current problems. Dropping another test onto the plate of overburdened students, teachers and administrators ignores the basic systematic and substantial changes that are needed to improve English education. Producing university graduates capable of working in international environments requires much more than upping test scores.
The proposal that all public and private universities designate minimum TOEFL scores for each department and only allow applicants who achieve those scores to take entrance examinations will shift the focus to English that is testable, quantifiable and publishable. Because the scores would vary between institutions, high English and low English schools would diverge, adding to the educational hierarchy. Setting minimum TOEFL scores for enrollment and graduation without the educational means to reach them will only worsen the “teach to the test” mentality.
The proposal did not specify how the ¥1 trillion budget would be spent. Most importantly, it did not address who would pay for all these TOEFL tests. Currently the official price for the exam is set at $225 per person.
Under the proposal, all students would need to take the exam at least twice, before being allowed to take entrance exams and before being allowed to graduate from university.
Adding those testing fees onto other entrance exam fees would be an unfair burden for many students. If the government is planning on paying for all that testing, it will not be spending money on teachers, resources or learning materials.
The greatly increased use of TOEFL will be a tremendous windfall for ETS, a private organization based in the United States that is registered as a nonprofit. Nonprofit or not, the global testing industry is large, global and highly profitable.
Both ETS and Japan’s cram school industry must already be preparing for an upsurge in TOEFL-takers.
The countries in Asia with the highest TOEFL scores do not use the exam in this proposed way. Instead, those countries emphasize communicative competence and active language acquisition from an early age.
The Asian countries with better English test scores support their English teachers with better resources, training and pay. Before Japan can hope to raise its students’ average score of 69 (on the Internet-based TOEFL for 2011) to Singapore’s average of 99, Malaysia’s 89, or even South Korea’s 82, it will need to make substantive and meaningful changes in its English education.
The four skills the TOEFL tests — speaking, listening, reading and writing — are basic to being competent in English. However, after the four-hour exam is finished, students need real-world skills to function in international contexts. Such exams do not test the ability to use English in presentations, response writing, or in-depth discussions. Nor do they address cultural awareness, self-confidence or other broader communicative skills. Those English skills are what students will need in the real world, but unfortunately they are not easy to test quantitatively.
To develop classes where students can learn more than test-taking skills, teachers need to have support to develop their own education, experience and training. The proposal mentions nothing about increasing spending on teachers, but in the long run, helping English teachers improve their English level and teaching methods would be the best initial investment.
Teachers need to know how to focus less on multiple-choice answers and more on English in living contexts, so that students can do the same.
Schools also need help and budgets to create English-rich environments where students can discover positive motivations to keep studying. The proposed ¥1 trillion would fund a lot of study excursions, engaging materials and online English exchange communities.
Developing lifelong learners of English, not just one-time test takers, will establish English as a core component of Japanese education and will produce workers capable of handling increased internationalization in the future.
Rather than herding students toward more testing, what is really needed is a proposal that supports and develops all the facets of learning effective, communicative English. The LDP proposal shows that the party seems to understand there is a problem, but it is far from finding the right solution.