Reference | FYI

Private English tests

Outsourcing of English tests stirs up storm in education

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

When speaking last month about a plan to introduce private-sector English testing for university entrance exams, education minister Koichi Hagiuda created an outcry when he said students should compete for entry “in accordance with their (financial) standing,” implying they should compete financially.

The comments created a storm of controversy, with some critics saying Hagiuda’s remarks violated the Basic Act on Education, which decrees that people must receive equal opportunities based on their abilities and must not be subjected to discrimination in education due to their social status or economic position.

Hagiuda was forced to apologize for his remarks and postpone the introduction of the tests, but the damage had been done. The incident raised larger questions, now being pursued by opposition parties in the Diet, as to how and why the government introduced private testing, and whether the system is transparent and fair to all regardless of social or financial status.

Why did the government decide to introduce private-sector English tests?

Many people have long been dissatisfied with Japan’s English-language education system and there was increasing pressure on politicians from the business community to improve students’ practical English skills so they can compete on the global stage.

Many business leaders believed the traditional university entrance exams didn’t emphasize practical English, and that private testing firms could do a better job of helping students become proficient or even fluent in the language.

What were the problems involving the move to private testing?

Masahiko Abe, an English professor at the University of Tokyo, noted in a July 2018 essay for Nippon.com titled “The Ill-Considered Reform of Japanese University Entrance Examinations” that a big problem is that, despite supporters’ assertions the private tests will emphasize all four basic skills (reading, writing, listening and speaking), the problem of reaching greater competence remains.

He said this is because there is a lack of specific plans to change current methods of instruction, which don’t put any particular emphasis on speaking.

Other problems include the test locations. Seven varieties of university entrance exams can be taken, but not all are held in every prefecture. Furthermore, the exams can cost thousands, or even tens of thousands of yen, and there are, of course, ambitious students and parents who will need to spend money preparing for the exams.

While urban-based students from middle- or upper-middle-class backgrounds are likely to find the exam locations convenient and the costs bearable enough to take more than once, talented students from poorer families in rural areas could find it more difficult, logistically and financially, to prepare for and take the exam or exams needed to apply to different universities.

In addition, there is likely to be an overemphasis on reaching the highest score, which could actually be damaging to overall ability.

“Students and teachers are likely to concentrate on preparing for the test … using methods tailored to achieving quick gains in scores, and relegate conventional English studies to second place. With this sort of focus, the tests are highly unlikely to promote ‘usable’ English ability; on the contrary, they are liable to cause competence to decline,” Abe wrote in the Nippon.com essay.

The new system was supposed to take effect next year but was postponed on Nov. 1. Yet complaints that the education system produces poor English speakers are long-standing. Why is the problem now being addressed with private testing?

The short answer has to do with political will and how the situation changed after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to power in 2012.

“The issue had been talked about for decades, but people were more cautious before Abe’s regime. They didn’t think it was realistic to privatize university entrance exams. It was former education minister Hakubun Shimomura (2012-2015) who pushed the matter ahead,” Abe the professor wrote.

This is also why it became a political headache for the government. Now a powerful LDP politician close to the prime minister, Shimomura’s past connections to, and role in getting, private English testing firms involved with university entrance exams during his stint as education chief are under renewed media scrutiny. That scrutiny is in addition to criticism from the opposition parties following Hagiuda’s controversial remarks last month. Shimomura has denied allegations of favoritism toward the testing firms.

Is the confusion likely to continue?

Makoto Suzuki, a Tokyo-based analyst with Fuji TV who follows national education issues, says that attention in the Diet on the entrance exam problem has now shifted to the government’s plans to introduce descriptive questions for the Japanese and mathematics sections of the new system.

The state-affiliated National Center for University Entrance Examination will be in charge of the new system. But scoring of these questions will be outsourced to the private sector and part-time workers will likely be involved in doing the grading, which has raised questions over the system’s fairness.

“Right now, the education ministry says it will proceed as planned. But if it turns out that fairness of scoring has not been secured, it has the potential to become a big political problem,” Suzuki said.