Ministry announces new junior high school English exam

by Shusuke Murai

Staff Writer

With its overhaul of English-language teaching faltering, the education ministry on Friday said it would introduce a new nationwide exam for third-year junior high school students.

The reading, listening, speaking and writing assessments based on an international proficiency index will begin in fiscal 2019.

The ministry will also urge each prefecture to set individual goals for improving English skills and publish their results.

Ministry official Hideto Takagi said this would make the prefectures aware of their relative performance and push them to raise their game.

The plan aims to get 70 percent of junior high school graduates achieving at least A1 level in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages index by 2024. This is equivalent to being able to communicate at a basic level when words are spoken slowly and clearly.

Some teachers say the goal is both overly ambitious and misguided: They say what is more important than forcing students through tests is to stimulate their interest in studying English.

A 2014 survey by the ministry found that 34.7 percent of the third year junior high school students have a Grade 3 certificate in EIKEN — or an equivalent proficiency — which is roughly equivalent to A1 in CEFR.

For high school graduates, the goal is to get 70 percent of them rated A2 to B1, which is to understand sentences in English about things closely related to them, or to create simple sentences about their own interests.

Another survey in 2014 found that 72.7 percent of third-year public high school students were rated A1 in reading and 75.9 percent A1 in listening.

The situation was less rosy for writing and speaking: 29.2 percent of students scored 0 out of a maximum 140 in writing and 13.3 percent scored 0 out of 14 for speaking. The average score for each test was 27.2 and 4.5, respectively.

But pursuing a better score in tests “can never be effective” in improving students’ performance, said Rie Hirakawa, the principal of Nakagawa Nishi Junior High School, the largest public junior high school in Yokohama.

Issuing orders to schools from above is “obsolete” she said, citing a gap between what the government is trying to do and what the schools actually want. She also said that teachers are too busy to devote more time to tests.

She said the plan may be another waste of time and money unless more consideration is given to what is happening at the school level, adding that the government should work out how to engage students in their studies rather than simply pursuing better scores.

The ministry survey found that 58.3 percent of third-grade high school students answered they do not enjoy studying English.

An English teacher at a junior high school in Kyoto said while the national exam might encourage some students to study more, it will still be hard to evaluate their speaking abilities through the exam.

Information from Kyodo added