An education ministry council has proposed reforms of Japan’s university entrance exams, which are often criticized for placing too much emphasis on the mere academic knowledge of test-takers and rote learning.

The ideas behind the reforms seem valid. The question is whether the proposed reforms can be introduced without causing confusion among the exam-takers and the universities.

The ministry panel calls for launching the new system in 2020, but the government should not make hasty decisions but rather carefully assess whether it’s practically feasible.

In its proposal submitted to the education minister on Monday, the Central Council for Education called for replacing the current unified exam, which all applicants to state-run and other public universities must take before taking additional tests by each school, with a new exam that will focus on testing the applicants’ ability to use their knowledge to think, make judgments, express themselves and solve problems. The applicants’ basic knowledge will be judged in another new test that they will take on multiple occasions while in high school to assess their academic achievements.

Each of the universities, meanwhile, will shift to selecting successful applicants by gauging their abilities in multiple dimensions through such means as interviews, essay writing and group debate, instead of relying on the scores of paper tests, according to the proposal.

The Abe administration has placed reform of the university entrance exam as a key part of its agenda to “revive” Japan’s school education. If introduced, the new system will mark the biggest overhaul of the system since the predecessor of the current unified exam for public university applicants was introduced in 1979.

The direction of the reform sounds rational if it results in contributing to producing more university graduates who can think and act on their own as they confront various new challenges in the changing environment of Japan’s society.

The question is whether the ideals of the proposal can actually be implemented.

The education ministry plans to set up a conference of experts early next year to start developing the model of the new unified exam, which the applicants will be able to take multiple times in the course of a year. It remains to be seen if the test can be so developed that it can correctly assess the students’ abilities to use their knowledge in solving problems.

There will likely be logistical problems on the part of the test organizers and the universities. Unlike the current unified exam in which computers process multiple-choice answers by test-takers, the proposed new test will likely require descriptive answers to questions.

As roughly 550,000 people take the current exam each year, it is questionable whether the test organizer can quickly grade descriptive answers by such a large number of applicants.

In the case of some state-run universities, thousands of people take their entrance exam each year, and for some of the big private universities, the number rises to the tens of thousands. The schools will need to make huge manpower investments to beef up their staff to be able to interview all the test-takers. Universities that have relied on paper test scores to admit or reject applicants will first need to establish the method and knowhow to assess students’ abilities through such means as interviews and group debate. They will need to adopt a fair yardstick in their assessment and be accountable to applicants.

The proposed reform assumes that high school students planning to go on to universities will take the achievement tests two to three times annually in their second and third year, which could require them to spend more of their time preparing for the tests. The new unified exam may prompt the students to take extra studies at cram schools and prep schools to acquire new skills to pass the test.

Reform of the entrance exam system would have a broad impact — which may be either positive or negative — not only on university education but also on the whole school education system. Potential problems should be carefully considered to prevent the essence of the proposed reform from ending up as pie in the sky.

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