Japan Times article on overhauling the national university entrance exam system

Entrance exams get failing grade

Japan Times, DEC 2, 2013

National university exams are notorious for their emphasis on book learning.

Once a year, examinees throng test sites, doing their best to regurgitate heaps of facts in the hopes of getting into the university of their choice.

Once done, however, the pressure to study is off. What’s more, having spent so many years studying for the exam, many have little sense of what comes next, of how to shape their futures.

Concerned about this state of affairs, the nation’s leaders have tasked a government panel with overhauling the national university entrance exam system, to focus more on nonacademic qualities such as communication skills and logical thinking. The reforms are expected by 2018.

Following are questions and answers regarding the revised exams:

How do university exams work under the current system?

Examinees first take a national standardized exam called the National Center Test for University Admissions. Introduced in 1990, the multiple-choice exam, known as “center” for short, assesses how well a student has grasped the “basic academic knowledge” taught during three years of high school. On average, 500,000 people take the test every year.

At the next stage, students take the exams given by the universities they hope will accept them. Students whose “center” test scores don’t meet a university’s threshold might be barred from taking its test.

In choosing whom to admit, universities typically combine the two test scores.

How will the “center” standardized exam be reformed?

The panel is considering doing away with the standardized test system altogether, and replacing it with what it calls a “learning achievement test” that can be taken a number of times a year, not just once like now.

The new system would let students who perform poorly, perhaps for reasons of poor health, to redeem themselves.

The new achievement test will also ditch precise scores, and instead put students into broad categories of five to 10 ranks, such as A (80 or above), B (60 to 79), and C (40 to 59).

What are the pros and cons of the intended reform?

Experts say the students’ fate often now depends too much on the difference of a single point, when such extremely narrow margins don’t necessarily reflect academic abilities.

Shogo Sawairi, chief adviser at the Shizuoka Prefecture headquarters of Shuei Yobiko Co., a leading cram school chain, said that because the new achievement test can be taken more than once, it will better assess students.

Because the tests can be taken multiple times, the students will be constantly preparing for the next round.

Yasumasa Kubota, manager of Shuei’s Shizuoka headquarters, said students in this age of globalization will have to acquire a variety of communication and language skills to have successful careers.

“They’re now living in this age where they will need to try and learn new things even after finishing school,” Kubota said.

On the other hand, Sawairi cautioned that broad test score categories could make it harder to evaluate performances fairly. Theoretically, those who score 60 and 79 will be treated the same as long as they are in the same group.

What are other possible changes besides abolishing the “center” test?

The panel wants universities to undertake “an aggressive reform” of their entrance exams, and de-emphasize book learning. Its latest proposal suggests minimizing the use of individual written exams and focusing more on assessing an examinee’s “human qualities,” such as through interviews, debates and short essays.

They are also advised to pay greater attention to a student’s “cultural activities” in high school, such as having studied overseas or participated in student councils.

Why the sudden shift to “human qualities”?

Looking out at the world, the panel says it is important for Japan to foster leadership and creativity in its young. The leaders of the next generation must be “ambitious,” “socially responsible” and “well-educated,” according to the panel.

There is also concern that today’s university students lack academic rigor.

According to statistics compiled in 2007 by the University of Tokyo’s Center for Research on University Management and Policy, 9.7 percent of university students study less than an hour a week. Only 0.3 percent of U.S. students are so unengaged. Also, 58.4 percent of U.S. university students study more than 11 hours a week, which is true of only 14.8 percent of students in Japan.

By encouraging so-called human qualities in students, the panel hopes to raise both aspirations and academic enthusiasm.

What are the worries surrounding this emphasis on “human qualities”?

Sawairi argues that prioritizing these “human qualities” during the screening process will do little to fundamentally correct the prevailing lack of academic interest.

“Just because you’ve focused more on the human qualities of examinees doesn’t mean their academic interest will suddenly increase after they enter university,” he said. “Rather, the question is how universities are going to change their education.”

Also, experts say this shift could favor children from wealthy families, since activities such as studying abroad usually require significant financial resources.

“It’s OK if universities think highly of these kinds of ‘human quality’ activities, but they always need to keep in mind that, financially speaking, not all of the examinees are in the same league,” he said.

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