For students trying to leap the cavernous divide between Level 3 and Level 2 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) (日本語能力試験), a new test being held for the first time on July 4 breaks the task into two smaller, more manageable hops. Other students, though, might find that progress through the test’s levels is about to get harder.

The newly added N3 stage pushes the number of levels in the revised test — for which applications close April 30 — from four to five. Each level gets a new name, from N5 at the bottom of the scale of difficulty to N1 at the top. (The “N” stands for both nihongo and “new,” according to Japan Educational and Exchanges Services [JEES], which administers the test.) Only levels N3-N1 will be tested in July each year; the lower two levels join the list when the test is held again every December.

The new test is an attempt to address complaints some examinees have made about the big gap in difficulty between the old Level 3 and Level 2 tests, but the extra level is just part of a bigger overhaul of the JLPT that JEES says should lead to results that better measure a person’s ability to perform the communication tasks expected of those who pass each level. In response to complaints test-takers have voiced that tests taken at different times for the same level have varied widely in difficulty, JEES promises to scrutinize the tests more closely from year to year to minimize the impact of differences. Furthermore, JEES says the material from which questions are drawn will also get a face-lift, but a scan of information on the JEES Web site and in the official test guidebook suggests this is mostly cosmetic surgery — with the sections simply rearranged.

As to the specifics, N5-N3 all retain three sections: language knowledge (vocabulary), language knowledge (grammar)/reading, and listening. But grammar and reading have been made one section instead of separate subsections, and you will answer grammar and content questions pertaining to readings at least a paragraph in length instead of answering single-sentence grammar questions and content-only reading questions.

For levels N1 and N2, the test has been trimmed to two sections: language knowledge/reading; and listening. The language knowledge section will combine both vocabulary and grammar.

Past tests featured two listening subsections on a CD. Both contained about 15 questions, one with picture-based multiple-choice answers; the other with spoken multiple-choice answers to choose from following the dialogue. Only the N5 level of the new test features picture-based multiple-choice answers; pictures may accompany questions — but not answers — in other levels, according to the JEES Web site.

Each level features five new types of question, according to the guidebook. One type found on all levels of the test introduces sentences that contain several blanks. Grammatical points and vocabulary appear underneath, and you must arrange them in the correct order.

The number of items tested in the vocabulary and grammar sections is generally expected to drop as you climb the levels, according to the official test guidebook. By contrast, the number of test items in the reading and listening sections rise with each level.

Generally, the allotted time for each section has not changed much, with more time being allotted for some sections. In the N1 and N2 sections, the listening sections will be 10-15 minutes longer, while the effect of combining the language knowledge and reading sections makes it 5-10 minutes shorter.

The most dramatic change, perhaps, is the scoring system, which could become a big bone of contention among students. From this year, all examinees will be required to pass each section, not just the entire test with an overall score (making it impossible to offset a low score in one section with a high score in another). Every level will be worth a total of 180 points. In the N3, N2 and N1 tests, these will be split evenly between each of the three sections; in the N5 and N4 levels, the language knowledge/reading section will be worth 120 points and the listening section 60 points. Minimum passing scores for each section and an overall passing mark are yet to be announced, but JEES will notify test-takers about that later this year.

While the revamp will help bolster the JLPT’s waning reputation as the premier gauge of Japanese-language ability, other tests such as the J-Test and the Japan External Trade Organization’s Business Japanese Test (ビジネス日本語能力試験) are quickly gaining respect among Japanese learners because of the everyday usefulness of their test material.

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