The education ministry says that a halt to the recent slide in Japanese children’s scholastic ability is indicated by the relatively high scores of Japanese fourth and eighth graders who took international achievement tests in 2007 for math and science. But it should not be proud.

In the quadrennial Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) conducted by the Amsterdam-based International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, Japanese eighth graders ranked fifth in math, the same as in 2003, and third in science, up from sixth, among 48 countries and regions. Fourth graders ranked fourth in both math and science, down from third in 2003, among 36 countries and regions. Students in both grades scored slightly higher than in 2003, except eighth graders’ points in math, which leveled off.

The ministry should not forget that TIMSS is primarily a type of test that favors students who are good at memorizing formulas and problem-solving methods. What is most important is students’ ability to apply their knowledge and skills to various situations. In the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which was designed to gauge such ability, 15-year-old Japanese students ranked sixth in science, down from second in 2003.

Even in TIMSS, Japanese students’ measured ability to link their knowledge to daily lives fell below the international average. Also worrisome is the fact that only 40 percent of eighth graders find mathematics interesting, 27 percentage points below the international average. Fifty-nine percent find science interesting, 19 points below average.

Although the education ministry’s new courses of study call for longer class hours for mathematics and science, it must realize that attempts to cram knowledge into children will decrease their enthusiasm and won’t be helpful in improving their thinking ability. It should seek a larger budget to recruit and keep good teachers who will exert originality and ingenuity to make classes intellectually interesting and stimulating.

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