Abe wants TOEFL to be key exam

by Jun Hongo

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is not satisfied with just revising monetary policy to spark the weak economy. He also appears bent on reviving another failing field — the public’s ability to speak English.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s panel on education will propose using TOEFL scores as criteria for entering and graduating from universities, reports said Monday.

Although the idea is still in its early stages, it is hoped the effort will help transform the way foreign languages are taught in the country, where English ability is considered subpar.

“It could have an impact on improving the level of English among Japanese in the long run,” Manabu Horiuchi of TOFL Seminar in Osaka told The Japan Times on Monday. The school specializes in teaching preparatory classes for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC), the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) and other language tests.

“If the level of each student improves, the country’s skills should go up as well,” he said.

The English-proficiency tests, administered by the U.S.-based Educational Testing Services, are offered two to three times a month in most cities across the country.

The scores are usually required to get into most schools abroad, but the LDP’s proposal is to set minimum TOEFL scores as requirements to get into and graduate from universities. Some universities designated for special language courses could require a student to score over 70 on the 120-point test.

It has been reported that the government could invest up to ¥10 trillion toward education changes in the coming years, with a portion of it to be used on improving English-teaching courses.

While Japanese students take mandatory English lessons beginning in elementary school, Japan has continued to rank among the worst-scoring countries when it comes to the TOEFL.

Data by ETS show that out of 30 Asian countries with TOEFL examinees in 2009, Japan ranked second from the bottom, along with Tajikistan, with a mean score of 67. China scored 76, North Korea scored 75 and South Korea 81.

The education ministry has tried to raise the level, with English classes made mandatory for fifth- and sixth-grade students beginning in fiscal 2011.

But whereas the TOEFL gauges reading, writing, speaking and listening skills, Japan’s English education has often been criticized for lacking balance.

“Most universities don’t test their examinees on English listening and oral skills,” TOFL seminar’s Horiuchi said.

Some say that adding TOEFL preparation to school curriculums could be too much not only for the students, but also for teachers. But studying for the TOEFL could provide a more balanced way to approach the language, Horiuchi added.

The government is also expected to request submission of TOEFL scores from applicants for government employment beginning in fiscal 2015.