Stressing over test scores

The education ministry’s new policy of letting municipal boards of education publicly release the results of nationwide achievements tests for individual public schools risks distorting Japan’s approach to education. The policy could lead educators and parents to become overly concerned with raising test scores at the expense of other important areas of education such as nurturing strong bodies and healthy minds, love of nature, independent thinking and creativity, and strong communication and cooperation skills.

Nationwide achievement tests were carried out in 2007 for the first time in 47 years. For the 2013 tests, only individual schools were allowed to make public their test results if they chose to and the education ministry only released average test results at prefectural levels.

But responding to requests from some local government heads who want disclosure of test results, education minister Hakubun Shimomura has decided to conditionally allow municipal boards of education to make public average test scores of individual schools.

On April 22, a total of 2.24 million sixth and ninth graders nationwide sat for achievement tests on Japanese and mathematics administered by the education ministry. All public schools took part in the tests while 47 percent of private schools did so.

Boards of education cannot make public an ordered list of schools arranged from the best down to the worst in terms of average test scores or a list that only shows each school’s average test scores. But they can now make public each school’s average test scores if they are accompanied by analysis of test results and measures to improve scores. It will be easy for third parties to make an ordered list of schools based on their test results.

If schools’ test results are low, it is very likely that the heads of the local municipalities and parents will put pressure on the school and the board of education to make efforts to improve the scores, resulting in a lot of time and energy being devoted at school to achieving such a narrow goal. But test results only reflect part of children’s overall ability. In addition, it is sheer nonsense to be preoccupied with the results of tests on just two subjects — Japanese and mathematics.

Municipality heads and parents must learn why earlier nationwide achievements tests ceased to be held in 1967 and be aware that a preoccupation with them can be the seed of ruining school education.

Many irregularities aimed at raising test scores were committed in the 1960s, including the holding of extra classes to prepare for achievement tests, teachers giving children the correct answers and arrangements being made for low-performing children to be absent on test days. In a lawsuit filed by a teachers’ union opposing nationwide achievements tests administered by the state, the Asahikawa District Court in 1966 ruled that the tests were illegal. The education ministry would be wise to rethink the new policy.

The ministry, educators and the general public must also be aware that analysis of the results of past achievements tests show that schools in areas with many low-income parents suffer from low test scores.

Japan’s expenditures for public education in terms of percentage of gross domestic product is in the lowest group among member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The government should drastically increase public financial support for the education of children from low-income households so they can improve their scholastic performances.