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Testing times for students’ English-language ability in Japan

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

The education ministry last year announced it would change the common testing system for universities, starting in 2020. A major change is expected to be made to the English-language component of the exam. Applicants will be asked to take English tests developed by commercial testing companies for the preliminary evaluation. The main reason for the change is that the ministry wants to emphasize interactive communication, specifically speaking and writing, in the evaluation of students’ English skills. The current English test concentrates on listening and reading.

According to the National Center for University Entrance Examinations, the ministry has selected eight companies whose tests they would accept for university admission purposes, which means applicants will have to pay more money in their quest to gain entrance to national schools, anywhere from about ¥6,000 to more than ¥25,000 for each test they sit.

In June, the Japan Association of National Universities adopted standards for the English examination portion of the testing process, although these standards are not binding. Any university can decide to what degree the new tests will figure in their criteria for allowing applicants to take university entrance tests.

The University of Tokyo, the most prestigious college in the country, subsequently announced in September that it would not require applicants to take the private English tests. The university didn’t state definitively how it will evaluate English ability, but suggested it could look at applicants’ performance in their high school studies.

The University of Tokyo decision calls into question the rationale behind the new testing system, which some say isn’t practical or fair. It has also focused attention on how English is taught in Japanese schools. Teachers will be expected to raise the English communication skills of their students if for no other reason than to do well on English tests as part of the admissions process, which is not the ostensible purpose of the new approach to English education, although it seems to be the immediate goal.

In covering the matter, two Asahi Shimbun reporters decided to take commercial tests to get a better idea of what applicants should expect. The first thing they noticed was that the three tests they sat — TOEFL ($235), which is administered by Educational Testing Services of the United States, the Cambridge English test (about ¥9,700 to ¥25,300) and Japan’s Eiken test (about ¥5,800 to ¥16,500) — were very different from one another. The TOEFL was designed to evaluate the English abilities of students who want to attend American schools, while the Cambridge test seemed geared toward British English.

The journalists reported experiencing significant challenges in the listening and speaking portions. One reporter said she couldn’t understand the recorded lecture on the TOEFL exam. The Cambridge test was difficult because of “rhythms” that the examinees weren’t used to. The Eiken exam was easier if only because the explanations were provided in Japanese.

The reporters did OK on some parts of the test and poorly on others. On the six-level Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, which the ministry will use to evaluate the results of the private tests, their scores were fairly low, and their conclusions were that the new system would not be effective in judging students’ English communication abilities. Also, applicants can take up to two tests during the prescribed testing period and then submit the results of the test they scored higher on, which means they can game the system.

Gaming the system is probably what Japan’s English-language instruction industry wants and whatever improvements the new testing policy will make in terms of language ability in the long run, it is definitely a pot of gold for private education companies — and not just testing services.

Last March, Kyodo News reported on an increase in the number of students at English conversation schools who were Japanese elementary school teachers. In 2011, the education ministry approved “foreign-language activities” for fifth- and sixth-year elementary school students. The policy will be expanded to third- and fourth-year students in 2020, while for fifth and sixth graders, English will become an officially graded subject. In response, more Japanese elementary school teachers, who typically cover all subjects, feel they need to sharpen their English communication skills because speaking will be a central part of the program.

The issue was discussed on the Sept. 22 edition of the Video News web program. Because high school students who want to enter university will have to take private tests to evaluate their speaking and writing skills, there will be more pressure on junior and senior high school English teachers who are not native speakers. During the discussion, sociologist Shinji Miyadai said that, according to conventional wisdom, native speakers should teach conversation, which means more students will be going to private conversation schools, too, but only for the purpose of getting a good score on the English tests used for university entrance.

Masahiko Abe, a professor at the University of Tokyo who recently published a book deriding the government’s approach to English-language study, said during the Video News discussion that making students take private tests only benefits the English instruction industry. As the Asahi reporters noted, the tests are so different in terms of what they evaluate that there’s no consistency from one to another in terms of results when universities decide which students will take their tests.

More to the point, Abe said, the government’s approach will not accomplish its stated mission, which is to improve students’ abilities to interact with the English-speaking world. Testing the four language skills separately will not tell the evaluator much about the examinee’s ability to communicate. Such tests can only diagnose specific problems that may need fixing.

When you use such tests for university entrance purposes, it effectively makes the process a competition, which means that nothing is going to change after 2020. It will just be more expensive.