Entrance exam change needed

The annual ritual of the entrance exam is once again upon Japan. Though the nature of knowledge, skills and social usefulness has changed tremendously over the past decades, Japan’s exam system has scarcely changed at all.

The entrance exam system needs substantial, forward-looking changes before other parts of the education system can be reformed. Without changing these exams, other meaningful reforms are unlikely to take place.

The exams still largely focus on testing what knowledge students have acquired, rather than looking at aptitude and potential. Unfortunately what students can acquire as memorized information and their test-taking skills at the age of 18 will be of little help later in a fast-changing society.

Some universities have started to look at more important skills in their exams, but the ability to think critically, or other such skills, is not a large enough part of exams yet.

The exam’s emphasis on quantity of knowledge rather than deeper comprehension or mastery of broader potential locks much of primary, junior and high school education into a test-preparation agenda. Textbooks, curricula and teaching methods are evaluated not on their ultimate value or how well they develop learners, but on how many students they get into competitive universities. Developing lifelong learners hardly enters the equation.

The knowledge, competency and mind-set needed in the future society and workplace have evolved tremendously in recent years. Memorizing basic information, for example, is no longer needed when most information can be found online. However, Japan’s exams have remained largely the same. A more careful consideration of what knowledge is most valuable and useful would steer the exams in more productive directions.

Alternative methods of evaluating students are desperately needed. Some schools allow interviews, recommendations and submissions of work such as essays or creative projects to give a broader picture of the individual applying. Those methods take time and effort to evaluate, but are more likely to provide a meaningful picture of a student than the ability to sit in a chair for a day and answer multiple-choice questions.

Taking pressure off students by allowing more chances to sit exams would also help immensely.

Moreover, the expectation that all students should enter college at exactly 18 and graduate at 22 also needs to be changed — by employers, schools and parents. Young people mature at different ages and should pursue different experiences, even taking off time or studying other subjects before applying.

Japan’s education system is faltering. To re-strengthen it, changes should start at the center of the system — the university entrance exams. Entrance exams should decide which students are best suited for which university department in new and better ways.

Whether the exam system can be changed will be a test for the entire country.

  • Julian Dierkes

    I couldn’t agree more with this argument. In fact, I made a very similar argument in the Japan Times only a year ago (Feb 3, 2012, “Exam Forces Students to Cram Irrelevant Facts”.

    While I’m delighted to see your editors agree with my previous argument, I can’t help but feel somewhat disheartened that nothing has changed in the past year.

    After I published that editorial last year, the most common reaction from colleagues and other readers was, “You’re completely right, but nothing will change.” Given the lack of change in this area over the past 12 months, I’d have to agree with that assessment as I look at this current editorial.

  • Ben Snyder

    “The annual ritual of bemoaning an examination system unchanged since Natufian hunter-gatherers created the Jericho Board of Education in 10,000 BCE is once again upon us.”

    There, fixed it for you.

    But seriously, the search for evidence of change in this area is better served through the lens of plate tectonics: Long periods of nothing, followed by sudden, violent upheavals in the blink of an eye. If you don’t see any difference from a year ago, that’s because you don’t see a difference from 1993, either.

  • MrsERP

    “Moreover, the expectation that all students should enter college at exactly 18 and graduate at 22 also needs to be changed — by employers, schools and parents. Young people mature at different ages and should pursue different experiences, even taking off time or studying other subjects before applying.”

    —>I totally agree with you on this. Age does not equate to maturity. Consideration should be extended to the equally talented/gifted “late bloomers.” There shouldn’t be too much pressure on students to hurry and finish school right away, specially at times like this when we live a lot longer.

  • Completely agree. Especially as students study English for several years at school, and while they can write and read well, they can barely speak it. Moreover, the focus only on American English leaves them ill-equiped to handle the English of speakers from other countries

  • Phillip

    Agree completely. But change is already upon us; edX.org and Coursera.org will cause a shake-up here just as it has caused a shake-up just about everywhere else. Dinosaurs have much to fear.

    • jansob1

      I wish it were true, but online education will never be a force in Japan. Japan is the only country in which online education numbers are decreasing even as it becomes a worldwide trend.

      Employers in Japan don’t care how much you know or how creative you are, or how much study you do on your own….they only want to see a degree from a standard bricks-and-mortar Japanese university. They need people who have proved they are willing to spend their first 3 years being treated like children. Making coffee, practicing answering the phone and bowing and apologizing for going to the bathroom or asking to go home at 8pm are the skills needed in Japan.
      I encourage my students to try and start their own businesses. Bright creative people have no place in Japanese companies.

  • Marion Kinoshita

    Most students upon completion of their undergraduate degree in Japan and proceed to study abroad encounter difficulties in critical thinking. They have yet to master the essential techniques of how to learn.

    It has always amazed me why English is treated as a language like Latin, to be read and written. Having said that, I do see a small improvement in the overall English level.

  • Hiroki Sano

    I agree with the change of entrance exams for the following two reasons: learners’ motivation and inducing talented applicants.

    Firstly, as the article mentions above, the content of Japan’s entrance exams is knowledge-oriented, so the students in schools under the compulsory education must remember as much knowledge taught in school as possible. It is very hard for students who are not good at memorizing. Human competence is not only knowledge but versatile such as music, art, and sport. Tests need to be such that maximize learners’ possibility. However, as almost all people say in their later lives, what they studied is of little useful in their career, in other words, your perseverance was just only for the exam, which is not at all related to your experience in society. In our world, creativity is the most demanding skill, therefore, school must change to deal with it, and basically, school system should change, otherwise, Japan will lag behind in competitive world.

    Secondly, the change of exams is essential to foster more talented human resources. To live in this world, the packing of knowledge is not so meaningless that the tests should measure how the applicant use the knowledge taught and what they want to do or what they did in school days. For instance, look at the entrance system of Harvard, and Stanford, which requires essay and achievement in school, not knowledge. Fortunately, private school many talented students enroll adopt an original system.

    Abe declared that he will make a nation with top-class scholastic ability. I wonder the present educational system will make it true. There are countless problems in education in Japan.

  • Earl Kinmonth

    What rubbish! In point of fact, the majority of Japanese college students do not take any entrance examination at all or only a very perfunctory one. Only students aiming at a small number of elite institutions have to prepare for a serious entrance examination. Most private institutions and some public ones have something close to an open door because of the decline in the number of eighteen-year olds. Moreover, if you actually read the published examinations, you will see that there is actually very little in the way of rote memory questions. It is not so much the content but how the examinations are used: N points and you are in, N-1 points and you are out. A better way might be what is called ashi-kiri in Japanese: you need at least N points to be considered on other criteria but N points does not guarantee admission. In any event, this editorial looks like a typical piece written by someone who has not looked at the current state of Japanese college entrance (essentially open door for all but elite institutions) and who has not read through the most widely used examination (quite different from what prevailed in the 1970s when I first came to Japan).