In April 2007, the education ministry revived nationwide scholastic tests for primary and middle school students after a lapse of 43 years. On April 21, some 2.345 million sixth-graders and third-year middle school students from some 32,300 schools sat for the nationwide tests for the third year.

To the relief of the ministry, Inuyama city in Aichi Prefecture, which skipped the first two tests saying that the tests fail to measure the abilities that the city really wants children to acquire, took part in this year’s tests. But only 48 percent of the nation’s private schools participated in the tests — down about five percentage points from last year — an apparent sign that they have doubts about the tests.

The ministry says the tests — in Japanese and mathematics — are designed to gauge the scholastic ability of individual children and help teachers improve their academic guidance of individual children. But test results are released to students only after the summer vacation. Answer sheets are no longer in the hands of teachers, although they have the ministry’s explanation materials. So how can teachers give proper guidance to individual children?

In such a situation, it is easy for parents, education officials and local politicians to become interested solely in the average test scores of each school, municipality and prefecture. This will lead to excessive and unnecessary competition, distorting the desirable direction of education. Although the ministry’s guideline bans making public the test results of individual schools and municipalities, some local government heads are trying to make them public.

First and foremost, the tests measure only part of children’s overall abilities. Sampling tests and tests given at individual schools and classes would be sufficient for proper academic guidance. A poll last summer of 854 principals shows that while 48 percent support the nationwide tests, 44 percent want other methods. The ministry spent ¥7.7 billion in 2007, ¥5.8 billion in 2008 and another ¥5.8 billion in 2009. Continuing the nationwide tests would be a waste of money.

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