Entrance exam scoring errors

The chief of Tokyo’s Office of Education earlier this month apologized for more than 2,000 scoring errors found on high school entrance examinations. Those errors cost 18 students places in the schools they wanted to attend. The aggravation and disappointment of those students and their families and teachers is easy to imagine.

However, the problem of scoring errors is the right time to reconsider not just scoring but also the basis of those exams.

The apology from the head of the office to the parents, teachers, officials and the applicants themselves was all well and good. However, the errors should be the impetus to reconsider the lack of transparency in the entrance exam system at all levels.

Those students not only had their lives unfairly disrupted; they also learned that authorities are often wrong.

In this case, they were very wrong. The scoring problem reported in April spurred an investigation by Tokyo education officials. The office found 1,139 scoring errors at 146 high schools for the 2014 school year and 1,072 errors at 109 schools for 2013.

After the probe, the office concluded that 12 successful applicants were incorrectly rejected by 10 schools in 2014 and six more were rejected by six schools in 2013. Those numbers may seem relatively small, but they are still important.

No one is perfect, of course, and every teacher and scoring system is apt to run into unforeseeable problems. However, the reasons for the errors were not reported, nor were all the errors given full public disclosure.

The entrance exam system in Japan has long been run without any demand for disclosure. The preparation of the exams, their administration and the scoring are perhaps the most closely kept secrets in the country.

Security is important to curtail cheating, of course, but explanations about exam objectives should be made open to students. In the past, and to a great extent nowadays, too, students and the huge exam preparation industry have had to just guess about the real purpose of certain types of questions and the best possible answers.

If exam construction, goals and intentions were explained openly, students could focus less on test-taking strategies and more on learning meaningful content.

Exposing such errors undermines trust in the entire system. The best way to regain that trust is by admitting errors, detailing steps to prevent them from happening again and re-evaluating the exam system. A working group was set up in May consisting of outside experts and school officials to establish preventive measures by yearend. As they consider suggestions, they should understand that the entrance exam system is in dire need not only of greater exactitude but also of much less secrecy and much clearer and more open aims, goals and methods.