As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party forges ahead with its strategy of nurturing “internationally minded” talent to aid economic growth, the prospect that students’ scores on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) will be used as criteria for entering university looms increasingly large.

In this age of globalization, the need for personnel with adequate English ability isn’t going to go away anytime soon. In addition to the well-known TOEFL, other types of English-proficiency tests, such as the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) and the Global Test of English Communication (GTEC), have risen in prominence in recent years.

Now a new face is about to join the lineup: The Test of English for Academic Purposes, or TEAP.

Though still in its infancy, TEAP is being touted by its main developers — Sophia University and the Eiken Foundation of Japan — as a reliable touchstone for gauging the English competence of Japanese schoolchildren who are learning it as their second language.

A look at TEAP and how it differs from the other tests follows:

Who will take TEAP and why is it different?

The primary characteristic of TEAP is that it is specifically designed to test students who are learning English as their second language, says Kensaku Yoshida, director of the center for language education and research at Sophia University.

Meanwhile, foreign-born tests such as the TOEFL and IELTS, for example, target those aspiring to study on a par with native English speakers in countries like the United States and United Kingdom.

Therefore, according to Yoshida, they tend to be fraught with culturally specific expressions and nuances that could strike some examinees as overly unfamiliar. The required level of vocabulary in those tests is also much higher, he said.

“What TEAP does, however, is to see if your English ability is good enough for you to take English-only classes in Japanese universities with no difficulty,” Yoshida said.

GTEC for Students, co-developed by Benesse Corp., might have a test-taker demographic that’s similar to TEAP’s because both exams are suited to test the English proficiency of Japanese high school students.

The GTEC is touted by its developer as having “task-based” questions that require students to go beyond the traditional regurgitation of facts and think proactively about how to respond in certain situations.

While lauding the GTEC as well-organized, Yoshida argues that the TEAP is more dedicated to assessing one’s ability to function in English in an academic setting.

“So in other words,” he said, “if universities are only interested in testing examinees’ general English abilities, GTEC might be a better choice.”

Sophia University is thinking about phasing the TEAP into its admissions process in the 2015 academic year.

What is the test like?

The TEAP consists of four sections titled Reading, Listening, Writing and Speaking.

The details about the last one have yet to be made public, but the Reading and Listening sections deal with issues related to university life.

The Listening section, for example, requires examinees to comprehend short conversations involving professors, exchange students and academic advisers — the kinds of people “university students are likely to come across.”

The test is conducted on a paper basis (except the Speaking section) and in total lasts a little more than three hours.

According to Yoshida, because TEAP is based on measuring English proficiency, it allows no use of Japanese and discounts irrelevant factors, such as ignorance of extremely difficult vocabulary.

How is TEAP different from the foreign tests?

The TEAP’s primary feature is its due consideration for, and abidance by, government-designated education guidelines, Yoshida said.

Because these guidelines stress the need for more interaction and pragmatism, students who have taken English classes in Japanese schools may have little trouble taking the TEAP.

But according to Yoshida, the reality is that less than 10 percent of schools nationwide follow this principle.

Designed as it is to dovetail with official education policies, the TEAP will therefore be easier for “kikoku shijo,” or students who have returned from living abroad, than for ordinary Japanese students because returnees are generally more adept at expressing themselves and thinking logically in English, Yoshida said.

How bad is English education in Japan?

English education here is notorious for its persistent inclination toward the “grammar translation method,” in which students are asked to parse complex sentences and explain what they mean in Japanese. This approach has been criticized as antithetical to building a natural understanding of English.

Yoshida blames the current system of entrance exams, which zero in on scrupulous translation tasks and obscure grammar questions. This means teachers become preoccupied with getting their students prepared for these questions.

Yoshida says that few of these exams have undergone proper scientific scrutiny, meaning their trustworthiness is unproven.

“Some questions require students to read between the lines and grasp a slight difference in nuance, but that doesn’t really have anything to do with their actual English skills,” he said.

Will TEAP help improve ways of evaluating the English competency of students in Japan?

Kenichi Ishihara, chief director of the information center at Sundai, one of the nation’s leading cram school enterprises, said he is hopeful that use of the test by universities will become widespread and ultimately change the status quo of the entrance exam system.

Studying overseas used to be considered a privilege available to a precious few, but nowadays it’s no longer rare, Ishihara noted.

“The emphasis now is on making Japanese students more capable of communicating in English,” he said. “Critics say English education in Japan has been ineffective in helping students join debates or express themselves in English.

“TEAP is trying to correct that tendency, so if used as an alternative to traditional entrance exams, the test, I think, will change the way teachers conduct English education.”

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp

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