New entrance exam isn’t the right answer

by Takamitsu Sawa

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology has launched a drastic review of the National Center Test for University Admissions apparently by taking seriously criticism that Japanese university entrance exams are too heavily leaning toward assessing the levels of knowledge and skills acquired by applicants to the point of neglecting assessment of their ability to think, judge and express themselves.

In the existing National Center Test, multiple choice questions are used for all subjects. Students choose what they think is a correct answer from multiple choices and blacken a mark corresponding to it with a pencil so that the scoring can be processed by computer. A new unified university entrance test will replace the center test in the 2020 academic year. Although details of the new test system have not yet been worked out, it appears almost certain that for the subjects of Japanese and mathematics students will be required to write their answers in a descriptive manner.

A sample problem for Japanese, which was disclosed in May last year, goes as follows: Students are asked to read a guideline drafted by municipal authorities for protection of the landscape in areas designated for preservation of the appearance of houses and stores on streets and a script of conversation between a father and his daughter on the guideline. They are then asked to answer four questions in a descriptive manner. But they are only required to answer by writing short sentences, like “within 20 characters” and “between 80 and 120 characters.”

Although the questions are aimed at assessing students’ ability to read and understand the municipal guideline and the family conversation, I cannot help feeling that the questions cannot satisfactorily assess students’ ability to think, judge and express themselves.

Indeed, compared with the baccalaureate exams in France, there is a huge difference. In the test for philosophy in the French baccalaureate exams, students choose one out of three questions and spends four hours writing an essay to express their thoughts.

It would not be cost effective, however, to introduce a descriptive testing method, which would require burdensome work in grading just for the purpose of assessing students’ ability to read and understand material at the level as shown in the sample problem.

It also is not necessarily true that there is statistical evidence to show that Japanese university students lag behind their American, European, Chinese and South Korean counterparts in the ability to read, judge and express themselves. The statistical dispersion of university students’ ability is wide. If an international comparison is made for the ability of reading, judgment and expression among the top 5 percent of university students, there should not be any statistically meaningful disparity between students in Japan and in other countries.

Yet the education ministry has — I do not know on what statistical basis — concluded that Japanese university students are inferior to foreign university students in the ability to think, judge and express themselves and has jumped to the conclusion that the current university entrance exams, which the ministry thinks are too heavily leaning toward assessing the levels of students’ acquired knowledge and skill, are to blame. Thus the ministry has adopted a policy of replacing the National Center Test with the planned new type of unified university entrance exams that will include a requirement to answer in a descriptive manner to assess applicants’ ability to think, judge and express themselves.

In European countries, high school students aspiring to sit for entrance exams for universities are required to thoroughly read Western classics in philosophy, thought and ideas and literature. At entrance exams, their ability to read, interpret and write long essays is tested. Put differently, primary and secondary education in European countries places an emphasis on nurturing the ability to think, judge and express oneself.

In the United States, an emphasis is placed on “relaxed education” aimed at relieving students from cramming knowledge. As a result, students’ levels of knowledge and skills are not high. They are not required to read difficult Western classics. The level of mathematical education is also low.

On the other hand, American students are well-trained in presentation and debate, which are indispensable part of relaxed education. After entering universities, they freely choose their own majors and minors.

American university education places an emphasis on learning the basics of students’ field of specialty (for example, mathematics, physics and chemistry in the case of students who aspire to become engineers) and cultivating the ability to think, judge and express themselves through reading and interpretation of Western classics. It is only in the postgraduate stage that students learn specialized knowledge and skills directly related to their future careers.

Japan is peculiar. Students acquire fairly advanced levels of mathematics, natural sciences, social studies and English in high school. But each subject is taught by cramming knowledge and skills into students. Nurturing the ability to think, judge and express tends to be given secondary importance.

It is not necessarily a bad thing to place emphasis on teaching knowledge and skills in high school education. But the problem is that the revision of the standards for establishment of universities by the education ministry, which went into effect in 1991, eliminated walls among general education subjects, foreign language education, physical education and specialized education subjects ostensibly for the purpose of introducing flexibility to university education. This led universities to abandon their role of providing students with a liberal arts education.

Before the revision took effect, students majoring in natural sciences were required to take three subjects in humanities and another three in social sciences as general education subjects. It was also compulsory for them to study a second foreign language in addition to English. But under the revised standards, which represented an attempt at deregulation, the number of credits students are required to earn in general education has been drastically reduced and many credits are allotted to specialized education subjects. A majority of the liberal arts and natural science subjects that became required subjects upon the establishment of the current university education system in 1949 were virtually abolished as the revised standards were implemented.

European students study liberal arts and sciences at high school and American students at university. In Japan, from beginning to end, the main method of teaching students in both high school and university is the cramming of knowledge and skill. In other words, the structure of Japan’s education system is such that it only produces “distorted specialists” who have acquired a sufficient amounts of specialized knowledge and skills but lack a general education.

In order to cultivate the ability to think, judge and express, it is absolutely essential to provide students with opportunities to study liberal arts and sciences to their heart’s content at either high school or university. Requiring students to answer in a descriptive manner under the new university entrance test system will not in any way elevate their ability to think, judge and express themselves.

A longtime contributor to The Japan Times, Takamitsu Sawa is a distinguished professor at Shiga University.