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Editorial: Last chance to rethink new English tests for varsity entrance

  • September 18, 2019
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 01:05 p.m.
  • English Press

Both high schools and universities still harbor deep concern about an education ministry plan to introduce private-sector English language tests as part of a new standardized university admission exam program starting in fiscal 2020.


If the move goes ahead, it seems destined to sow confusion and distrust. This is the last chance for the ministry to weigh the merits of the program and put a halt to it.


Two-thirds of universities and 90 percent of high schools take a dim view of the proposal, labeling it as “problematic” in a nationwide survey jointly conducted between June and July by The Asahi Shimbun and Kawaijuku Educational Institution, a leading operator of cram schools.


The National Association of Upper Secondary School Principals took the unusual step of asking the education ministry on Sept. 10 to “postpone” the introduction of the new system.

In July, the association urged the ministry to take steps to “dispel anxiety” about the plan among teachers and second-year students who will be the first to take college entrance exams under the new system. The ministry’s failure to address the situation prompted the association to take stronger action.


The association’s own survey of high school principals found that nearly 70 percent of the respondents sought a postponement.


Current second-year students can take up to two of the tests operated by six private-sector organizations designated for the program between April and December next year. The results will be used by universities for their admission decisions.


Koichi Hagiuda, who was appointed education minister in the recent Cabinet reshuffle, said postponement risked causing “confusion.”


Indeed, second-year high school students have been studying English under the assumption that all of their four English language skills, “speaking and writing” in addition to “reading and listening comprehension,” will be measured in university entrance examinations.


The sizable number of universities that have announced their intention to use the results of private-sector tests for their admission decisions would be required to revise their plans if the new exam system is postponed.


But educators fear the new system will cause even more serious confusion.


Especially troubling for them are the issues of geographic and economic disparities among students.


Private-sector English tests are not conducted evenly across the nation but concentrated in urban areas. They also are not cheap.


The education ministry has floated a number of steps to address these concerns, including cuts in examination fees for low-income families and subsidizing travel expenses to examination venues for students living in remote islands. But these proposals are limited in scope and woefully insufficient.


In addition, many specifics remain unclear, such as the schedule and venues of the tests.


A number of universities have yet to decide how they will use the test results for their admission decisions.


Many students preparing for university entrance exams are growing uneasy day by day, as are their teachers. They complain that it is impossible to grasp the full picture while the clock is ticking.


The education ministry should work out specific measures to address these concerns within a limited time frame. If it is unable to do so, it should shelve the test plan for a certain period.

Despite concerns voiced about the program, the ministry is determined to make it a reality in fiscal 2020.


Few would dispute the importance of developing all of the four English language skills. But no clear answers have yet been given to such basic questions as whether the hundreds of thousands of test takers will be given equal opportunities and whether the results will be used in a fair and appropriate manner in admission decisions.


The planned English test reform is also aimed at improving English language education in this country.


If so, it is all the more important for the ministry to pay serious attention to the voices of students, parents, high schools and universities to create a system that is effective and convincing to those concerned. Otherwise, its efforts to realize better English language education in Japan will simply fail.

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