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When the education ministry released its first study of the differences in the English skills of students between prefectures in Japan, the results came as a surprise. But differences in the English skills of students between states in the United States have been common knowledge for decades, with the reasons continuing to provoke a contentious debate.

To assess achievement, Japan used the Eiken English test, which consists of two parts. The first measures vocabulary, reading, listening, and writing. The second measures speaking. Only students who pass the first can progress on to the second.

The study found that Chiba Prefecture was No. 1, with 52.1 percent of third-year junior high school students being proficient. It was followed by Akita Prefecture with 48.6 percent, Tokyo with 47.9 percent, and Ishikawa Prefecture with 47.8 percent. Eight prefectures had less than 30 percent proficient. For third-year high school students, 11 prefectures failed to make the cut.

What is disturbing about the gap between prefectures is that the Eiken test measured the ability to understand and speak English concerning everyday topics. That’s important to bear in mind if the ultimate goal is to prepare students for life after graduation. For too long, students in Japan were known for their ability to translate passages, but when it came time to engage in a conversation, they found themselves at a distinct loss. This difference persists, despite efforts to eradicate it.

Student proficiency in English in the U.S. is measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Known as the nation’s report card, NAEP is administered every two years in reading and math to a sample of students in public and private schools. It has consistently shown a difference in student achievement between states. For example, students in Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas routinely post scores far below those of students in Massachusetts and Minnesota.

In 2015, about 600,000 students took NAEP in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Department of Defense schools. Because of the size of the student sample and its long history, the results are widely regarded as a valid indicator of learning. On the latest test, progress in reading for eighth-graders decreased, with no state raising scores in both reading and math. Only West Virginia showed an increase in eighth- grade reading between 2013 and 2015.

By collecting data for both junior and senior high school students in Japan for the first time, the education ministry is correctly establishing a baseline, which will prove invaluable in the years ahead as pressure mounts for accountability. Since 1969, NAEP has done just that for the U.S., which is why it is so closely watched.

What is lost in the debate in both Japan and the U.S., however, are the reasons why scores progress, decline or remain flat. In the final analysis, that is indispensable if learning is to improve. Teachers and schools welcome constructive criticism, but instead they are subjected to naming and shaming. The result has demoralized teachers at a time when they need support more than ever before.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week, a U.S. national newspaper covering kindergarten through 12th grade education. Gardner taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and was a lecturer in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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