Misguided focus on test results

Reversing its traditional position, the education ministry has decided to let municipal boards of education make public the results for individual schools in the achievement tests taken by sixth and ninth graders nationwide. The policy change, effective in 2014, is problematic as it is likely to lead to excessive competition among schools and students, as well as to ranking schools in terms of the test results. This could distort the overall purpose of education. Most importantly, it must be remembered that the test results show only part of students’ ability and interest.

Until now, the ministry had prohibited boards of education from publicizing the test results of individual schools, fearing it would result in excessive competition for school rankings. Its explanation on why it has changed its position is not convincing.

The ministry should learn from history. Similar nationwide tests introduced in 1956 were terminated in 1966 because they had fostered excessive competition. Some schools put a vast amount of energy into preparing students for the tests. In some cases, teachers helped students cheat in the tests.

Current achievement tests examine sixth and ninth graders’ basic knowledge of Japanese and mathematics, and their ability to apply that knowledge. In introducing the tests in 2007, the ministry said the purpose of the tests is to find out what is wrong with teaching and to help teachers improve their teaching of individual students.

Individual schools at present are allowed to make public their test results but only if they choose to, and the ministry only publicizes test score averages at the prefectural level.

From fiscal 2014, municipal boards of education will be able to make public the test results of individual schools not only from the most recent tests but also from past tests.

The ministry says that boards of education also must make public the analysis of test results and ways to improve teaching if they make public the test results of individual schools. But how will publicizing the test results for individual schools help teachers improve individual students’ understanding and ability — the original purpose of the tests?

Once the tests results of individual schools are made public, it will be easy for someone to list schools in descending order of their students’ average test performance. This could lead to fierce competition among schools and school districts, forcing teachers to concentrate their efforts all the more on improving test scores.

In a July survey, 62 percent of municipal mayors and 79 percent of municipal boards of education opposed making public the test results. The ministry has ignored the opinions of officials familiar with the real situation in education.

Instead of allowing the test results to be publicized, the ministry should concentrate on examining whether the tests actually measure up to their original purpose. In doing so, the ministry should not forget the simple fact that the purpose of education is much more than improving students’ scores on achievement tests.