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Flawed entrance exam reform

by Takamitsu Sawa

On Dec. 22, the Central Council for Education submitted to the minister of education, culture, sports and science an advisory report titled “On an integrated reform of high school education, university education and university entrance examinations for connecting high school and university education in a way that would best suit the requirements of the new age.” On the basis of the report, the education minister announced on Jan. 16 his “action plan to implement reform to link high school and university education.”

My understanding is that the minister’s plan, which is primarily related to reforming the system of screening university applicants, is aimed at making the Japanese university entrance examination system closer to the “global standard.”

One unique feature in Japan’s university entrance examination system is that great weight is placed on the entrance exams carried out by individual universities to screen applicants, unlike in many other countries where all applicants take the same unified nationwide exams and individual universities rarely implement their own entrance exams. Let me give some examples.

In the United States, universities judge the capability and aptitude of applicants on the basis of their scores in the nationwide Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), their high school scholastic achievements, letters of recommendation from their teachers and their extracurricular activities. Also sometimes taken into consideration in the final screening are balances in gender, geographic location and race or ethnicity.

In France, those students who pass the qualification test known as the baccalaureat are almost certain to be admitted to the university of their choice. In cases where the number of applicants exceeds the quota, priority is given to those living near the university or they are accepted in the order in which they applied.

In China, schools like Peking University and Tsinghua University, to which students from all parts of the country apply, allocate an admission quota for each province and applicants are selected on the basis of their achievements in the unified nationwide examinations.

Through the 1978 academic year, all Japanese high school graduates seeking to enter national and other public universities were required in principle to take examinations in three courses — English, mathematics and Japanese — and two subjects each from two other courses — science and social studies — irrespective of whether they aspire to pursue natural sciences and engineering or humanities and social sciences.

Through the 1960 academic year, both groups of students had to take entrance exams in the same courses and subjects. From the 1961 academic year, however, those seeking to major in humanities and social sciences were exempt from taking tests in “mathematics III,” while those whose aspirations were in natural sciences and engineering no longer had to take tests in Chinese classics, a subject that is taught as part of the Japanese language course.

Although a certain degree of differentiation was thus introduced in the types of entrance tests those two groups of students were required to take, national and public universities required high school graduates to have knowledge in a wide variety of fields through the 1978 academic year.

In 1979, the “common first-stage examinations” were introduced for all high school graduates seeking to enter national and public universities. These exams were renamed “national center test for university admissions,” which they are still called today.

In this system, national and other public universities rely on those centralized tests to evaluate the broad, basic knowledge of students. But they have come up with their own differentiated tests for those students who want to major in natural sciences and engineering and for those who want to major in humanities and social sciences. Because of this, the universities are satisfied if natural science candidates pass the national center tests in the Japanese course and one subject in social studies, and if humanities candidates pass the national center tests in mathematics and one natural science subject.

In the subsequent tests that individual universities give applicants who have shown an acceptable level of achievement in the nationwide tests, the exams cover much more limited fields than they did prior to 1979.

Those wishing to major in natural sciences and engineering are only tested in science, mathematics and one foreign language while those wishing to go into humanities and social sciences are just given tests in Japanese, social studies and one foreign language.

This system — in place now for 35 years — has created a lamentable situation. A majority of students graduating from universities with majors in natural sciences and engineering do not possess basic knowledge of history, literature and philosophy, while a majority of those with majors in humanities and social sciences lack basic knowledge of physics, chemistry and mathematics.

Both the advisory report of the Central Council for Education and the action plan of the education minister aim to first carry out a fundamental reform of the system of university entrance examinations. They have expressed hope that this will serve as a catalyst for both high schools and universities to change their systems of education so they will conform with the university entrance exam reform.

They say that university entrance examinations and high school and university education should be helpful in evaluating students’ “genuine academic ability” and nurture that ability, which consists of (1) possession of knowledge and skills; (2) the faculties of thinking, judgment and expression that are necessary to discover their own problems, to work toward solving those problems and to achieve accomplishments through the utilization of their knowledge and skills; and (3) an attitude suitable for autonomously collaborating with different types of individuals.

I have some doubts about these proposals and will enumerate them here.

First, it is next to impossible to properly and fairly evaluate numerous applicants’ faculty of thinking, faculty of judgment and faculty of expression. These three faculties are something that should by their very nature be acquired through learning at universities. High schools would be overburdened if they were required to nurture these faculties in students.

My hope is that a system is developed in which high schools devote themselves to having their students acquire broad knowledge related to the five courses and the seven subjects. It would be desirable for students to possess a broad, basic scholastic ability and then acquire the faculties of thinking, judgment and expression in the course of deepening their knowledge in their specialized fields at university.

Second, I cannot understand why the ability to autonomously collaborate with different types of individuals is counted as a genuine scholastic attainment. I can fully understand the importance of company workers and public servants being capable of collaborating with other people. Such an ability may also be indispensable for those engaged in experimental sciences. But the fact is that many of those people who have achieved something epoch-making in such disciplines as theoretical physics, mathematics, humanities and social sciences do indeed lack a collaborative personality.

Third, if high schools are to be charged with the task of teaching the basics related to the faculties of thinking, judgment and expression, that could result in the inadequate teaching of knowledge and skills.

In America, where “education with latitude” is pursued, students are taught the foundation of the three faculties at primary schools, junior high and high schools. They learn knowledge and skills at university, and at graduate school receive specialized education that relates to their professional careers.

In summation, the second and third components of the genuine academic ability are taught at primary and secondary schools and the first component of the ability is taught at universities, while postgraduate schools serve to upgrade all three components.

It seems to me that there are only two alternative courses of action: either make minor adjustments to the current system for linking high schools and universities or change the existing system into the type used in the U.S.

In my opinion, changing the existing system to the American pattern would entail friction and costs beyond imagination. The Central Council for Education and the education minister say that they are aiming to reorganize the national center test for university admissions in such a way as to evaluate students’ genuine academic ability in regard to the three components.

But it seems utterly impossible for the new types of tests, which would be taken by hundreds of thousands of students, to evaluate not only knowledge and skills but also the faculties of thinking, judging and expression as well as the aptitude to autonomously collaborate with other people.

As a specific means of implementing reform, I propose the following: The tests to be introduced anew should be divided into roughly three ranks according to difficulty, with a view to evaluating the levels of knowledge and skills that are currently tested in the entrance examinations prepared by individual universities. Universities or departments should initially accept applicants in the number equivalent to about 1.2 times their respective quotas. The applicants’ faculties of thinking, judgment and expression should then be evaluated through interviews, discussions and essay writing in the final stage of the screening. This would be both feasible and fair.

Takamitsu Sawa is president of Shiga University.