In a move sure to shake up the nation’s English examination system for college enrollment, an education ministry panel has approved a plan featuring a complete shift to proficiency testing by private firms.

The envisioned shift to a private testing system reflects the nation’s intention to improve students’ ability to write and speak English — something long overlooked by the national standardized exam called “center shiken” (center test).

The proposed plan, approved Monday by a panel of experts set up by the ministry, will phase out the decades-old center shiken system, stipulating its English section give way to a variety of privately-run proficiency tests by fiscal 2024.

Possible candidates include TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication), TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and the Eiken proficiency test, ministry officials told The Japan Times on Tuesday.

The plan also involves a revamp of the testing system for subjects such as Japanese and math, replacing the current multiple-choice format with a new standardized testing system in fiscal 2020.

“We have found that after six years of studying English in junior high and high schools, few Japanese students can actually speak and write in the language sufficiently,” said Taizo Yamada, an education ministry official in charge of college examinations.

In a move that surprised many, a revised education guideline unveiled by the ministry in 2009 called for an “all-English” policy that demanded teachers conduct their English classes in a Japanese-free setting.

But “students aspiring to pass college entrance exams wouldn’t feel motivated enough to hone their speaking and writing skills after all if the very exams they’re trying to pass are focused on reading and listening,” the official said.

The English section of the current center shiken, adopted nearly 30 years ago by most national and public universities as the first step in their screening process, only tests applicants’ reading and listening abilities.

Some private English proficiency tests, including the TOEFL and Eiken, have speaking and written exams.

According to the plan approved Monday, a switch from the center shiken to private tests will become possible starting in fiscal 2020.

But universities will be given a four-year preparatory period until fiscal 2023, during which they can adopt a multiple-choice style standardized exam similar to the current center shiken. But a full transition to private tests, which can be taken twice in the April-December period, will become mandatory starting in fiscal 2024, although such a shift will not prevent universities from conducting their own English tests later in their screening process.

In the ministry’s first comprehensive study conducted in 2014 — which looked into the English proficiency of about 70,000 third-year high schoolers nationwide — abysmally low levels of speaking and writing abilities were discovered.

In writing, an overwhelming 86.5 percent of those surveyed ranked a level A1, the lowest tier in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) six-tier classification system. CEFR is an international standard for determining language ability. Those who scored less than 70 out of 144 points are ranked at the A1 level.

What is worse, more than 40 percent of those surveyed scored less than five points.

The speaking section showed a similar trend, with 87.2 percent placing in the A1 level. In the survey, 58.3 percent of respondents said they do not like studying the language.

Yamada said he was aware of the criticism that the use of private tests — whose fees must be covered by students themselves — could pose a financial burden for test takers, possibly discriminating against the poor.

To reduce such concerns, he said the ministry will ask operators of the tests to lower their prices for such students.

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