A failing grade for universities’ entrance exams

The fact that errors in questions and scoring for an entrance examination last February at Osaka University — which resulted in the rejection of 30 applicants who would otherwise have been admitted — were left unaddressed for nearly a year is disturbing, given the time and opportunities lost for the youths. While the university says it’s ready to admit all 30 students in April and offer compensation, it needs to re-examine why it took so long to find out about the mistakes — even though the problem was repeatedly pointed out by outsiders. As the nation enters the entrance exam season this year, operators of all universities across the country should learn from this lesson.

Mistakes happen in entrance exams at universities. In 2001, an error in the allocation of scores in a Japanese-language test for admission to the engineering department of Yamagata University was exposed by a request from an applicant for scoring disclosure. When the university re-examined the past exam records, it found that more than 400 applicants had been mistakenly rejected due to the same error over the five preceding years. It was also learned in the same year that an error in a test scoring program used in the exam for the humanities department at Toyama University left 16 applicants mistakenly rejected — and that the university had covered up the error for two years. More recent examples include errors in questions at Chukyo University in 2015 and scoring mistakes at Osaka Prefecture University, in which the erroneously rejected applicants were later admitted.

These examples indicate that such errors can take place anywhere. The question is whether the institutions, when alerted to the possibility of any mistake, are ready to quickly examine the potential problem and take corrective action.

In Osaka University’s case, the problem occurred in the physics test — which was mandatory for applicants to sections of its engineering and science departments. For one of the questions, there was more than one correct answer, but in the university’s scoring of the tests, only one of the answers was graded as correct. This also caused a problem in the scoring of the next, related question in the test.

The problem was first made known to the university by a member of a group of high school physics teachers in June. In August, a lecturer at a prep school sent an email to the university making the same point. But a science department professor and his deputy, who were responsible for creating the questions, discussed the case among themselves and replied that they saw no problem with the question at issue. The prep school lecturer was not convinced by their explanation, sent another email to the university with details on the perceived mistake, and filed a request with the education ministry in September to take action when he got no subsequent response from the university.

It was only after the university received another email from an outsider in December, giving even further details on the problem — complete with a formula — that the school re-examined the case among more of its teachers, and identified the problem. When the university rescored tests based on the result, it was learned that 30 rejected applicants had in fact earned high enough scores to be admitted.

Now the 30 applicants — 28 males and two females — either enrolled at different universities or went to prep schools to prepare for another attempt at the entrance exam this spring. Also, there were nine students who ended up in the department of their second choice at Osaka University due to the scoring error. In disclosing the errors Jan. 6, the university publicly apologized for the errors and said it will admit the applicants in April if they wish to enroll. It plans to offer compensation to the students for prep school fees and other expenses, and consider steps to accept the students into its second-year courses if they are transferring from an institution that they entered last year. It is hoped that such steps are not coming too late for the students.

Following the disclosure by Osaka University, the education ministry sent out a notice to all public and private universities urging them to take steps to ensure against test-scoring mistakes and to take prompt action when possible errors crop up. Mistakes can be made, as past examples show. But operators of education institutions should be aware that delayed action to address those errors can have major consequences for the youths’ future.