The stress of entrance exams

Sunday, Jan. 25, 2009  Japan Times




The cold of exams

This coldest time of the year brings the most difficult time of the year for students and parents — entrance exam season. The two-day unified college entrance exams for national and municipal universities ended on Jan. 18. Over a half a million young people took the unified exams, with even more taking private university exams in the following weeks.

While some innovations in this massive social undertaking have been introduced, the system remains largely unchanged. That is unfortunate since the entrance exam is at the heart of many ongoing educational problems.

To take just one, last year had the highest sick leave rate ever for elementary, junior high and high school teachers. Nearly 8,000 teachers took leave, with over 60 percent citing psychological problems as the reason. Stress, overwork and parental complaints are the main culprits, but they stem from the overall pressure to get as many students as possible to simply pass entrance exams, regardless of what they actually learn.

That pressure is likely to increase as economic conditions worsen, putting even greater pressure on parents, teachers and students. Even though the total number of students is decreasing, which should theoretically ease acceptance rates overall, the competition has steadily increased at top universities. Every fall, ever more parents rush to submit applications for their children at “other best” schools, followed by various tests and interviews, and the vicious cycle continues.

Instead of letting the same old testing pressures continue to drive the educational system, changes are needed. This economic recession might be a good chance, or the last chance, to rethink the high-pressure status quo and its negative effects. De-emphasizing entrance exams will allow education at all levels to refocus on more substantial and active learning. Reconsidering the very basis of all education can help develop the critical thinking and creative potential needed in the post-recession age.

The entrance exam has long been one of the most decisive and powerful experiences in young people’s emotional and psychological lives. Now is the time to question and reconfigure those long-cherished exam traditions in order to institute a better system all around. Sometimes it takes a crisis to educate people.

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