Issues | LEARNING CURVE

Eiken broadens language tests to address criticisms

by Joanna Vasquez

The Eiken is Japan’s most prominent test of English ability, so much so that anyone involved in the English education industry in Japan has probably had some association with it. Tests are administered three times a year over seven levels (in ascending order of difficulty, 5, 4, 3, Pre-2, 2, Pre-1 and 1) and test-takers are on the rise.

For the 2015 testing year, some 3.2 million people in Japan sat the tests, while the total number of test-takers since its inauguration in 1963 now tops 100 million. (These figures include children sitting the Eiken Junior, aimed at the youngest of language learners, and the Eiken IBA, a placement test for use by groups.)

A June 9 Learning Curve article by Hans Karlsson, “Is the Eiken doing learners more harm than good?,” leveled a number of serious accusations against the tests. In response to those allegations, I decided to speak to a number of people — from test-takers and parents to English-teaching professionals — about their views on the Eiken, and addressed some of these issues with a representative from the Eiken Foundation of Japan, which creates and administers the tests. (In accordance with the organization’s policies on confidentiality, Eiken employees and anyone else involved in administering the tests could not be identified in this article.)

There is a degree of confusion among the public about the nature of the entity behind the tests. In English, the Eiken Foundation is known as a “public-interest incorporated foundation.” According to a spokesperson from the Eiken Foundation’s public relations department, following changes to Japanese laws governing nonprofit organizations in 2008, it became a public-interest foundation “for the purpose of contributing to the spread of practical English in Japan” with the authorization of the Japanese government.

The Eiken test is backed by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). This begs the question, “Why or how is it that civil servants actively promote Eiken in the state school system when it is not a government test?” as one British university professor, who asked to remain anonymous, put it.

“Many schools use the tests as way to measure their students’ English ability, in particular the five levels between 5 and 2, which approximately cover the first year of junior high school through to high school graduation,” says the Eiken Foundation representative. “Since MEXT has set benchmarks of Level 3 for junior high graduates and Levels Pre-2 or 2 for high school graduates, boards of education are looking to acquisition of the Eiken as a means of measuring and improving English ability among students.”

Eiken as motivator and yardstick

Since Eiken has such a high profile in the Japanese educational system, private English schools also often make use of the tests to measure students’ ability.

Claire Sezaki owns her own English school and says the Eiken tests are a useful way to benchmark progress.

“I use Eiken in my school but I feel I use it sensibly. For instance, I would never allow very young students to take the Eiken exams. We don’t cram for it but we do practice skills for test-taking,” she says. “My students enjoy the challenge and the parents have a concrete example of progress, which can be hard for them to assess when observation lessons are limited and children clam up when asked to ‘Speak English’ at home. There are other tests, but none are as widely recognized in Japan or as easy and cheap to take.”

Another English school owner and Eiken rater agreed that the test has a valid place in the system, as long as passing the exams doesn’t become the be-all and end-all.

“If a school has incorporated vocabulary, grammar and methodology into their program, based on Eiken, nothing wrong with that. But if the school’s focus is based on ‘how to pass the test’, and is promoting how kindergarten students have passed Eiken Level 2, then the school has bastardized the test,” he says. “I ask you: Why teach kindergarten children for taking an Eiken test?”

Erina Ogawa, a lecturer in business administration at Toyo University, also sees a valuable role for the Eiken test in the English learning process.

“I think the Eiken provides manageable steps for learners to challenge their English abilities. Passing a level gives them a sense of accomplishment, which becomes motivation to continue striving to improve their English,” she says. “I’m glad when a student has a proud look on their face when they tell me they have reached a certain level on the Eiken, because attitude is so important to learning.”

Rounding out the lower levels

While the Eiken aims to be a well-rounded test of English ability — encompassing listening, reading, speaking and writing — some critics point out that the last two skills are not required at the lower levels. Eiken is seeking to address this, and has rolled out some major changes, beginning with the most recent round of tests last month.

Until now, a speaking test was required for Levels 3 and up, while only the top two levels included a writing section.

“We have added a writing component to Level 2, with plans to incorporate a similar section into Pre-2 and 3 in the near future,” says the Eiken representative. “Moreover, from this year Levels 4 and 5 now include a speaking component.”

Although Japanese typically made their Eiken debut in junior high school in the past, these days test-takers range in age from senior citizens down to very young children. Some foreign parents of bicultural children educated in the Japanese system also see the tests as a useful tool for motivating their children to study English.

“My kids gained validation for their English ability from Japanese friends, teachers and neighbors by taking Eiken,” says Marybeth Kamibeppu, a parent of three children. “I also think the validity and quality of the exams has increased a lot in recent years.”

Alison Miyake has recently helped her teenage daughter study for Pre-1 exams.

“As a Canadian mom, I have always felt that the lack of essay-writing and limited group discussion in Japanese schools compared to Canadian schools makes it more difficult for students here to express themselves, so it seemed to me that the Eiken was helping to make up for this deficiency,” Miyake says.

One ongoing issue for the Eiken tests is the training and monitoring of the legions of staff who work as graders and examiners, and some people interviewed for this article expressed concern about quality control, particularly when speaking tests at the lower levels are conducted by Japanese speakers of English.

“We carry out evaluation training of all those on the interviewing committees, and from this year we are installing IC recorders in the interview rooms in order to ensure fairness and improvement of the examination environment,” says the Eiken spokesperson.

Managing growth

With numbers of test-takers continuing to rise and the addition of the new writing and speaking components in the lower-level exams, the Eiken Foundation says there is a greater need than ever for people to help administer the tests. Raters and examiners must undergo training to gain certification to work for Eiken.

The foundation would like to recruit talented people from the wider business community, the spokesperson stressed, and such individuals do not necessarily have to be connected to the English teaching industry. Some level of Japanese skill, however, is also desirable.

“There are a number of English exams are out there on the market,” says Eri Nakata, a Japanese national who works for a foreign company. “I would like to take Level 1 of the Eiken but I’m not sure how it equates with other exams, such as the TOEFL.” The TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) measures the English proficiency of non-native speakers wishing to study at the college level, and is administered by Educational Testing Service, a nonprofit organization.

The Eiken Foundation is aware that this can be a potentially confusing issue for test-takers, particularly at the higher end, when university entrance and job offers may be at stake. In response, they have developed what is known as the Common Scale for English (CSE), which lines up equivalent scores for a number of major English exams, including the Eiken and TOEFL.

“The CSE is a unified approach to scoring across various certification examinations, and so English learners do not need to take multiple tests to evaluate their level,” says Eiken’s spokesperson.

The CSE is similar to the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages), an international standard of linguistic competence used widely in Europe and the United States. The Eiken Foundation is hoping to broaden the scope of the CSE in the future with the help of other major educational organizations in Japan.

The author is involved in administering the Eiken test and her name is a pseudonym, in line with foundation policy. This article was written and edited independently and was not shown to the organization before publication. Hans Karlsson’s critique of the Eiken tests can be found at bit.ly/caseagainsteiken. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp