In a national survey released in April by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, and Science, and Technology (MEXT), Okinawa came last on English proficiency levels of public senior high school students in 47 prefectures. The result was “totally unexpected” for the prefectural education board, as it has been working hard to develop a curriculum with a focus on English and to groom “English-savvy talent” across the prefecture. Questions are being raised by several experts over the research method and the release of rankings by prefecture, but the ministry plans to continue this survey in the next fiscal year and beyond as it argues the research is expected to produce results.
During an English class at Funtema Senior High School, located near the U.S. Marines Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, first-year students are given the assignment “Talk about Your Blood Type”. They are instructed to pair up and ask each other questions in English, such as their blood types and personalities. The lesson’s objective is to improve speaking proficiency, which is an area Japanese do not excel in. Throughout the class, Japanese is hardly spoken.
The school’s English curriculum focuses on Eiken, an English proficiency test, which is designed to improve the language skills in a well-balanced fashion. The school runs after-school programs to prepare students for the test. Thanks to these efforts, over 120 out of about 400 school seniors passed at least Grade Pre-2 (equivalent to the intermediate level of high school students) before their graduation.
This school is not the only example. Okinawa tops the Eiken rankings passed by junior and senior high school students in all 47 prefectures. In Fiscal 2012, the prefectural education board began a campaign to make the prefecture the best place for English education. Since then, they have promoted study-abroad programs for students and organized training courses for teachers to improve their teaching skills. About half of the municipalities in the prefecture subsidize Eiken’s examination fees. “The results are being produced,” said an official on the prefectural education board.
But the recent MEXT survey shows that Okinawa sank to the bottom in the rankings of English proficiency for high school students. The percentage of senior-year students who are believed to “have the skills equivalent to or higher than Grade Pre-2” came to 21.8%. Meanwhile, Gunma Prefecture won the crown position at 49.4%. The results sparked criticism toward the prefectural education board. Some people complained by stating, “What happened despite the huge amounts of money spent?”
The survey ranked the prefectures based on the share of senior-year students who passed Grade Pre-2 (holders of Grade Pre-2) and those who do not have Grade Pre-2 but teachers determine to have skills equivalent to Grade Pre-2 (non-holders of Grade Pre-2). This method was adopted out of consideration to students in communities where it is difficult to take Eiken examinations.
In Okinawa, there were 1,498 holders of Grade Pre-2, while there were 1,383 non-holders. Gifu Prefecture, for example, was ranked 17th in the recent MEXT proficiency rankings. Its number of students surveyed was almost the same as that of Okinawa. Although the prefecture had 1,200 Grade Pre-2 holders, the number of non-holders came to 4,148. This shows that the figure of non-holders affected the results. The Okinawa education board says that “the evaluation of English proficiency of non-holders was insufficient,” and argues that the prefecture is ranked 26th if only the percentage of holders is counted. The board also notes that it would move up to 17th if the percentage of students in English intensive courses is included. The prefecture has been active in setting up English intensive courses within public senior high schools. It is the second largest prefecture in terms of the number of students who enroll in these programs and has currently an enrollment of over 400 students. The board argues that students in English intensive programs should be included in the survey to accurately assess English proficiency.
Some experts on English education question that the survey only uses Eiken to assess English proficiency. The subjective opinions of teachers cannot be completely removed when they assess the English skills of Grade Pre-2 non-holders. Factors, such as studying at home and going to cram schools, also influence English proficiency. It is difficult to measure English proficiency levels on a prefectural basis and make comparisons among prefectures.