After decades of intense public criticism of the rigidity and inflexibility of the higher education entrance exam system, Todai and Kyoto University, two universities at the top of the university ranking pyramid, have finally decided to redress these perceived weaknesses through their  planned introduction of the recommendation-based entrance exam and admissions office exams.

The planned reform changes are also meant to address the criticisms that Japanese elite higher education, along with the rest of Japanese universities in the mid-to lower ranks, have been producing students, who may be adept at rote learning and passing academic entrance exams, but yet who lack academic proficiency, enthusiasm, motivation to learn or other broad skills necessary for future career or social success.

The negative effects of the over-reliance on standardized test scores, as well as of the competitiveness of and rigidity of the Japanese entrance exam system on student learning  — have been noted in the 2009 paper by Dennis Riches, “The practices of university admissions and entrance examinations: Their impact on learning and educational programs“. In it, Riches roots strongly for Japan’s reform of university entrance exam practices drawing upon the American experience with:

“a growing movement in America to reduce or eliminate reliance on SAT scores and admit students based on their high school record, or other skills and achievements. Pink (2004, pp. 57-59), for example, describes new methods of assessing “right brain” creative problem solving to be used in formal admissions screening. An organization in Boston, The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, has been advocating in favor of reform of university admissions since 2002, and it has already been influential in the few years of its existence. All of the schools that have abandoned reliance on standardized test scores report improved student satisfaction and performance, and improved reputation of the institution. A skeptic would notice that few elite universities are in this group, but this is beside the point. This is an innovation that is useful to the second and mid-ranking universities who want to give the best education possible to the students they actually get, not the ones they wish they could have.”

Riches also levels other criticisms such as the problem of lack of open scrutiny or transparency of the entrance exam creation process and the lack of training of test developers (rendering the possibility that entrance exams may be unreliable or invalid tests)

“If universities still want to insist that prospective students take a difficult examination, they could rely on specialized test producers that have the resources to make reliable and valid tests that are open to public scrutiny. This would allow professors to devote more time to teaching and research in their specialties. Yet this would also require the individual professors and the universities to forego the financial incentives involved in holding entrance examinations. Unfortunately, most universities are stuck on having their own branded examination as a way of signaling to the public that their standards are difficult to attain.

Riches gives several reasons why exam reforms such as introducing greater flexibility such as AO exams would have a beneficial effect:

“High school graduates in Japan have already completed standardized national achievement tests and received grades and diplomas from a standardized national education system. Making them take entrance examinations is just overkill, or it is an admission that universities consider the public education system to be unreliable. Whether students succeed at university depends on the quality of their experience after entering university, and such quality is much more likely to be achieved if students have not experienced a phenomenon which their society refers to as “entrance exam hell.”

The planned reforms will also introduce essays which addresses the latter of Riches’ criticisms of the validity of Japanese entrance exams due to the opaque test design process and their overreliance of multiple-choice questions:

Much worse is test design in which validity is not explicitly defined. Unfortunately, the situation at Japanese universities is that values and priorities are implicit and unexamined, buried in the traditional way of designing English tests. When validity does not exist, test results are only self-referential. A high score on a multiple choice grammar test tells only that the test taker is talented at this particular multiple choice grammar test. There is no evidence of a relation to skills that need to be applied in ‘real world’ situations.

The overdue reforms, while they will be welcomed by many,  are still rather modest … with Kyoto University proposals, out of admission quota of about 2,900 students, only 100 are selected, and the top 5 percent of students at each high school will be allowed to take special entrance exam which clearly continues to emphasize a reliance on academic testing scores (albeit those of the high school).

Note that Admissions Office or AO exams are not new in Japan, they have been introduced by a fair number of universities, but are sometimes viewed in a negative light as an easy route of student entry to universities with lower rankings or lesser reputations. A definition of AO entrance exams, for example, is given by Yamaguchi University as follows:

“The Admissions Office Entrance Examination differs from traditional written exams that only look at academic ability in that applicants are selected based on their comprehension creative thinking abilities, academic ambitions and other factors.

An interview examines the applicant’s character, curiosity and interest in humanity, society, culture, language, logic and other subject matter covered in the humanities. A written test following a lecture examines the applicant’s comprehension of the lecture. As with the general exam, any student with the appropriate qualifications to enter university may take this examination.”

Another article to which we might pay heed to when considering what drives university reform in Japan as well as worldwide is William Bradley’s  Educational Policy in 21st Century Japan: Neoliberalism and Beyond? which suggests that Japan’s educational policies have been driven by the same forces affecting educational policy-makers and educators worldwide … forces which Bradley identifies as competition resulting from neoliberalism, and he notes “that the concepts of internationalization are of less importance than the actual numbers of foreign students, faculty and course offerings in English” as well as the number of Nobel prize winners produced, to  Japan’s elite higher educational institutions.  The article suggests that such overriding motives prioritizing competition will have a negative impact on cooperative learning and critical pedagogy and thinking. We need to consider whether this statement is true, and whether consequently, the planned reforms will merely be surface deep.

By Aileen Kawagoe


To examine the details of the Japan News (Yomiuri Shimbun) report on the planned university entrance exam reforms, see below:

Japan in Depth / Todai, Kyoto University eye reforming entrance exams (Yomiuri Shimbun, April 16, 2013)

Two of the nation’s top universities–the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University–have decided to reform their entrance exams to cope with students’ changing qualities and a sense of crisis of being left behind globally in securing quality students.

Both schools have screened applicants solely with scholastic ability tests. For students starting in the 2016 academic year, however, Todai will start a special exam for candidates recommended by high schools. Kyoto University plans to introduce an “admission-office entrance exam,” an interview- and essay-based test designed to evaluate students’ motivation and abilities.

Each will admit about 100 students through the new system.

‘Sense of crisis’ behind decisions

“Todai is the leading university in Japan, and one of the most prestigious in the world, but a dark cloud seems to be forming over us. The review on the entrance exam represents the sense of crisis Todai has today,” said Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a professor emeritus at the university, at the school’s entrance ceremony at Nippon Budokan hall Friday.

Kurokawa, a former president of the Science Council of Japan, made the remarks in his speech to new students.

At the ceremony, university President Junichi Hamada touched on the “weakness” of the school.

“I’d like to frankly point to the University’s weakness as an organization,” he said, citing delayed internationalization and the homogeneity of the student body and the low number of foreign students.

As a matter of fact, the planned introduction of the recommendation-based entrance exam mainly aims at diversifying the student body, according to Hamada. Under the new system, which was announced in March, applicants require recommendations from their high schools, but Todai will not designate the schools from which they will accept recommendations, as many universities do. Instead, any school will be allowed to recommend up to two students.

The system is aimed at accepting applicants not only from certain prestigious high schools, but also those from rural areas and even those students who may be seen as mavericks.

The university said it wants to accept students with extraordinary talent in specific academic fields such as physics and history.

Among those who entered the university this spring, 56 percent graduated from high schools in the Kanto region, including 36 percent from Tokyo high schools. This is because of the tendency of the school to accept an increasing number of students from certain private schools in the Tokyo metropolitan area that offer integrated middle and high school education.

On the other hand, students from overseas accounted for only 1.6 percent. In addition, only 72 Japanese undergraduates studied overseas in the 2012 academic year, clearly indicating the university’s “introspective” nature.

“Having spent their school life with the same classmates through middle and high school, an increasing number of our students apparently have no opinion on society,” an associate professor of the College of Arts and Sciences said. “Those who are good at exams, but who have no chance to interact with those with different characteristics will never grow into people who will be active in global society.”

When it comes to the problem of declining motivation to study, Todai and Kyoto University students are no exception.

“We’ve traditionally had an atmosphere where students would learn on their own [without instruction],” Kyoto University President Hiroshi Matsumoto said at a press conference in late March.

He announced the introduction of an admission-office entrance exam, which the university calls “a characteristic exam,” at the press conference.

He said many students at Kyoto University cannot keep up with classes as they lack the academic ability or motivation for subjects other than those required for entrance exams.

“We need ambitious, knowledge-hungry students with comprehensive scholastic abilities acquired through studying a wide range of subjects at high school. We want to nurture such students into people who can actively participate in international society,” Matsumoto said.

In addition to evaluating applicants’ high school performance, Kyoto University requires them to take the national center test for university admissions and tests in individual faculties. Todai also plans to require candidates to take the national center test.

Yukitoshi Sakaguchi, head of the entrance exam information center at cram school chain Yoyogi Seminar, said, “The universities are after top talent and want to secure those with high scholastic ability through the new recommendation-based exam and the admission-office exam.

New standard of excellence

What prompted the two top universities to carry out entrance exam reforms?

Shuji Hashimoto, vice president of Waseda University, said it is because the standard of excellence required for university graduates has changed over the years. Waseda University will discuss entrance exam reform from this academic year.

With increased globalization, companies are eyeing universities critically. Shuji Narazaki, deputy chief of personnel at Nissan Motor Co. said: “A leader in business requires not only language skills, but also the ability to negotiate and work with people from various countries. Compared with young people in other countries, Japanese youth are lagging.”

An executive of a manufacturer doing business overseas said the excellence businesses seek is not fulfilled by the students of Japanese universities, saying, “They have high academic ability but lack independence and are weak-minded.”

Other universities cut back

Though recommendation-based exams and admission office exams have taken root in national universities, except Todai, Kyoto University and the Tokyo University of the Arts, an increasing number of universities have started downsizing those exams.

Okayama University cut the number of students to be accepted through admission-office exams this academic year. “Because students admitted through admission office exams didn’t do well, we wanted to accept students with basic academic skills through regular exams.”

Other universities have different opinions.

“It became difficult to get the students we are looking for because high schools and cram schools started taking measures [to help students pass entrance exams],” one university official said. “We don’t see any real benefit though, and it requires additional screening,” another said.

While the two top universities’ attempt to attract public attention, a Todai lecturer who graduated from another university expressed concern regarding the reform.

Many faculty members are Todai graduates who have passed the traditional entrance exam of the university. So, they are bound with the traditional view on academic ability. Todai may end up choosing the same kind of students they take through regular entrance exams.”

— Entrance exam at University of Tokyo (based on recommendation for enrollment in academic year 2016 or later)

–Out of admission quota of about 3,100 students, 100 are selected.

–Each high school recommends one to two students.

–Candidates submit academic records, reference letters and proof of extracurricular activities.

–Admission begins in November. Candidates who pass document screening are interviewed in December. After National Center Test for University Admissions releases scores in January, successful candidates are confirmed.

— Special entrance exam at Kyoto University (based on enrollment in academic year 2016 or later)

–Out of admission quota of about 2,900 students, 100 are selected.

–Top 5 percent of students at each high school are allowed to take special entrance exam.

–Candidates must submit academic records, extracurricular activity reports and plan of study after enrollment.

–Candidates are comprehensively evaluated through document screening, National Center Test for University Admissions and interviews. Successful candidates are confirmed before secondary screening portion of general entrance exam.

— Current admissions at Harvard University

–About 2,000 students from around world are selected.

–Candidates are comprehensively evaluated based on extracurricular activities, personal statements, essays, academic records and SAT scores.

–Specialized university admissions staff screen application documents. Alumni around the world interview candidates.