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The education ministry has made public the prefecture-by-prefecture average scores of annual nationwide achievements tests carried out in April. The tests, which were begun in 2007 and cover sixth graders at elementary schools and third-year students at junior high schools, gauge their basic knowledge in Japanese, mathematics and science as well as their ability to apply the knowledge.

The ministry boasts that the gap between the average scores of the bottom three prefectures and the national average has narrowed from last year.

However, the ministry’s decision this year to start allowing municipal boards of education to make public the average test scores of individual public schools is problematic.

The ministry should rethink the policy because the disclosure of such information could skew the direction and goals of school education by fanning excessive competition among schools.

The education ministry has attached conditions to the disclosure. Municipal boards of education cannot produce a table just showing the test results, nor can they arrange the order of schools in accordance with the results.

They are also required to attach an analysis of the test results and offer measures for improving scores when they make public average scores for each school. That decision was apparently made in consideration of the accountability of the education authorities to parents and local residents.

Some 2.15 million students took part in the April tests, which were held at a cost of ¥5.5 billion. It is understandable that some parents would want indications of the scholastic situation of the schools their children attend.

Some chiefs of local governments also want the disclosure of test results as a means to spur school administrators and teachers to make more strenuous efforts to improve the scores of their students.

In October 2008, Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto made public average scores municipality by municipality. Other local governments followed with similar moves and attempts.

Although these moves were in violation of the education ministry’s rules at that time in running the tests, they eventually pressured the ministry into changing the rules in favor of the conditional disclosure beginning this year.

Last year, Shizuoka Gov. Heita Kawakatsu attempted to disclose the names of the principals at 100 elementary schools that performed poorly in the “A” test for Japanese language, which gauges students’ basic knowledge.

Facing opposition, he ended up making public the names of the principals at 86 schools that performed well.

This year, the governor disclosed the names of the principals at 262 of the 506 elementary schools in his prefecture whose average score in the “A” test for Japanese was above national average.

Also disclosed were the average scores of individual elementary schools in the 35 cities and towns of the prefecture.

He authorized these disclosures without the consent of the prefectural board of education, thus inviting criticism from the education ministry.

However, the ministry’s policy itself seems defective. Once municipal education boards disclose the average scores of individual schools in accordance with the ministry’s rules, it is easy for third parties to make an ordered list of schools based on their test results.

Ranking schools in this way would increase pressure from parents and heads of local governments on the schools and boards of education to improve test scores. And this could narrow the scope of school education.

Parents and local authorities should keep in mind that the achievement tests alone cannot measure the overall ability of children.

In a Kyodo News survey in late July, only two of the boards of education in the nation’s 20 major cities — in Osaka and Okayama — said they would make public both the names of schools and their average test scores.

The survey result indicates that many boards of eduction are aware of the potential harm caused by disclosure of the test results at each school.

The education ministry should think whether the nationwide achievement tests assist teachers’ efforts to rouse children’s interest in learning and to improve their overall ability, including the ability to think and to cooperate with others, free from outside pressures.

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