Achievement tests in public schools: when, why & what for

The recently introduced annual nationwide scholastics achievement tests were just carried out in April and the results and analyses are not in yet.
making the grade

Tests were conducted for two subjects, the Japanese language and arithmetic/mathematics on all of Japan’s public school sixth-graders and third year junior high school students.


No such comprehensive tests have been implemented on students since the 1964 school year (after a 43 years lapse), after a comprehensive exam on junior high school students in 1961 triggered heated controversy over the extent to which the central government can intervene in the management of educational institutions run by local governments.

The education minister Nariaki Nakayama had suggested such tests might be desirable to spur competition among children. The Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy, chaired by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, was responsible for the implementation of the nationwide tests.


The excerpt from the article JAPAN to conduct scholastic tests next year by Kwan Weng Kin (2006, Straits Times) explains why the tests were mandated.

“Since the debate on falling academic standards started to appear in Japan in the 1990s, similar tests in various subjects have been conducted every four years on randomly selected children.
The problem, however, is that the educational authorities have not found a way to arrest and reverse the decline.
Japan has long prided itself on its high level of education, which played a large part in its meteoric rise from the ashes of World War II to become the second largest economy worldwide, after the United States.
The first indications that Japanese children were being overtaken by their counterparts in other countries appeared in 2000, in a survey of 15-year-olds in organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member states, but the signs were ignored by Japanese officials.
Instead, believing that Japanese children were under too much pressure to study, the ministry in 2002 cut curriculum content by 30 per cent and lesson hours by 20 per cent. It also encouraged teachers to devise classes aimed at getting hcildren to think more for themselves.
It was not until the second OECD survey in 2003 that the ministry finally acknowledged that it had a problem.
In the 2003 survey, Japan fell to 14th place in comprehension and to sixth place in numerical problem-solving.
Rising demands by parents for public schools to teach more have also prompted the Education Ministry to review its curriculum guidelines.
But psychiatrist Hideki Wada, Who has written about falling academic standards in schools, believes the problem is not just in the curriculum.
Some studies have shown that nearly half of all Japanese teenagers these days no longer need to study hard to get into senior high school, which is for children aged 16 to 18.
Japan’s declining population means there are now enough senior high schools for all, with the result that children with low aspirations are taking things much easier.
Only those hoping for a place in the nation’s best schools continue to have to slog.
“Considering that entrance exams are the strongest incentive to study hard, it means that average to sub-average performers are not studying that hard any more,” said Mr Wada.
To give them an incentive to study, he suggested the introduction of “graduation” exdaminations for 15 year olds and 18 year olds.
In Japanese schools, promotion from one grade to the next is automatic and there are no unified examinations such as the O-levels or A-levels as in Singapore.
Instead, capable students devote their time to preparing for highly competitive entrance examinations to get into the next school of their choice.
For example, a 15-year-old hoping to get into a prestigious senior high school may have to sit for six to eight entrance examinations.”
The national testing project cost 7.7 billion yen last year and raised criticisms as to whether they were really necessary as there are already existing surveys carried out on a nationwide scale with selected samples and ones conducted by local governments. The testing also raised some discontentment among parents who wanted to know the overall scores of their kids’ schools as compared with other schools.
Clearly the results of the survey could be useful for clarifying school rankings and shed light on the level of academic performance of students of individual prefectures and municipalities. While the ministry only disclosed data by prefecture, the results will also be sent to municipal governments and schools that will decide to disclose or withhold them. The ministry has asked that care be taken in disclosing the data on grounds it could trigger excessive competition.

Last year, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology findings from the results of the tests taken by nearly all of the nation’s 2.2 million sixth-graders and third-year junior high school students were as follows:

・Compared with basic knowledge, students tend to lack the ability for application;

・On the whole, the difference in scores among prefectures was small but some prefectures, including Okinawa, had lower scores; and

・Schools with a larger number of students receiving financial assistance tend to have lower scores.

A survey on students’ lifestyles was carried out at the same time. Coupled with the results of the achievement tests, they revealed the following trends:

・Students who do homework at home tend to have higher scores; and

・Students who eat breakfast every day tend to have higher scores.

The ministry plans to notify prefectures of the results for use in future projects.

But there is nothing new about these findings. Most of the trends were already apparent from other surveys.

The ministry revived the survey after 43 years that virtually covered all students of certain grades in response to calls that students’ scholastic ability was declining.
The education ministry does not appear to be taking the test results further and says it expects local governments to analyze the results and come up with answers to questions such as:
What caused the gaps between prefectures? How effective are classes with fewer students?
There are no national tests at the end of compulsory secondary education (junior high school), but (local) prefectures set achievement tests which may cover Japanese, social studies, mathematics, science and English.52 There are also individual entrance examinations (the ‘fourteen plus’ exam) for post-compulsory upper secondary education (in senior high school or similar) and students may choose to take one or more of these. Normally, in Japan, such schools set their own entrance examinations and control their own admissions, although in some cities, the public authorities may set the exams and allocate children to public senior high schools44 on the basis of the candidates’ results. In addition to examination performance, schools take into account reports from the principals (headteachers) of the students’ junior high schools but, as these reports are largely based on the students’ performance in a series of mock entrance exams they simply confirm, for the most part, the results of the entrance exams themselves. Internal teacher assessment of students also continues during this phase.

All students take part in the local (prefecture-set) achievement tests on completion of compulsory junior high school. (These may cover such subject areas as Japanese, social studies, mathematics, science and English, dependent on the prefecture.)
Year-to-year promotion in compulsory education is practically automatic — promotion to the next class or phase and certification of completion of a particular phase are made on the basis of internal teacher assessment.

However, admission to post-compulsory upper secondary education (in senior high school or similar) is granted on the basis of credentials from junior high school ie. internal teacher assessment, entrance examination (Senior high school entrance examinations are usually set and held by the individual institutions concerned) AND prefecture achievement tests.
Participation in the entrance examinations for post-compulsory upper secondary education (senior high school), taken towards the end of lower secondary education (junior high school), is voluntary.

Following three years of junior high school education (at the age of 15) students may take the entrance examination for senior high school (the ‘fourteen plus’ exam). Japanese senior high schools, which cater for the 15-18 age range, are hierarchically ranked for their academic quality by the public in each locality. It is considered vital for a successful career to secure entry to a good senior high school as the first step on the ladder to an elite university and from there to a high status job in the civil service, the professions or in one of the large corporations. This makes doing well in the fourteen plus entrance examinations for senior high schools crucially important to Japanese teenagers.44
Assessment in the form of locally- (prefecture-) set achievement tests takes place on completion of junior high school and is formal. These tests, usually written, may cover such subject areas as Japanese, social studies, mathematics, science and English, dependent on the prefecture.52

Tests used for the continuous classroom assessment of students, which continues during this phase, tend to be written, factual and in multiple choice format, rather than essay-type.43

Tests for entry to post-compulsory senior high school are formal (written), take place towards the end of junior high school and are set and organised by individual educational establishments.44
Entrance examinations for senior high school

With regard to entrance examinations for local public upper secondary schools (senior high schools), while scholastic tests are often administered by the prefectural or municipal boards of education which establish the schools, the selection of entrants itself is conducted by each school under the supervision of the respective boards of education and in accordance with regulations and standards set by the boards regarding admissions procedures. National and private post-compulsory upper secondary schools conduct their own entrance examinations.32

In some cities, the public authorities may set the exams and allocate children to public senior high schools on the basis of the candidates’ results.44 Where senior high school entrance exams are set by the Ministry of Education, these are in English, Japanese, mathematics, science and social science.4

The entrance examinations for senior high school and higher education are not necessarily matched closely to students’ curricula in the previous phase.21


Prefectures tend to set achievement tests for students at the end of compulsory (lower) secondary education in junior high school. These may cover Japanese, social studies, mathematics, science and English.52

Apart from these achievement tests, throughout junior high school, teachers also conduct informal continuous classroom assessment of their students, using either teacher-devised or (most often) ready-made tests, particularly in Japanese and arithmetic.20 Such tests tend to be written and in multiple choice format.43

Grading process: Teachers generally engage in three kinds of assessment:

On-going assessment of day-to-day work, but not structured in relation to criteria analogous to attainment targets and level descriptions in the English National Curriculum.
Criterion-referenced assessment relating to standards embodied in the Course of Study and usually arrived at through testing.
Norm-referenced assessment involving a comparison of the performance of individuals with that of their peers and reported to parents in terms of grades, not orders of merit. (There are no standard procedures laid down nationally as to how such grades should be derived or described.20)
In addition, students are encouraged to assess their own work, as well as that of their peers.

Each elementary school is required to enter termly assessments on cumulative guidance records, which are later passed on to junior high schools. These records provide criterion-referenced assessments, using a three-point scale, of children’s social and personal development and cognitive achievements, as well as attendance details and records of any special activities undertaken. They also carry a grading in each subject.
Norm-referenced grades on three- or five-point scales are given for academic achievement in each subject and criterion-referenced grades using a three-point scale are provided for aspects of social and personal development.

Credentials from lower secondary education (the results of internal teacher assessment in junior high school and in the prefecture-set achievement tests on completion of junior high school) are important in influencing student admission to post-compulsory upper secondary education.
Admission is, however, mostly dependent on student performance in the entrance examination for the upper secondary school concerned.

Use of results from entrance examinations for senior high school
Scores from across Japan in the senior high school entrance examinations are gathered and tabulated on a percentile basis, and each Japanese students knows where he or she is placed in comparison to others.4
When students are tested in class, parents are informed of the test results (completed test papers are sent home to them). Cumulative guidance records are also kept for each student.

The understanding is that students who fall behind are not provided with extra programmes after school, but usually attend jukus or similar establishments.
*** However, in practice, it is not uncommon to find that many homeroom teachers actually work with individual students on their weak areas as and when the need is felt.

(*** my own observations and difference in opinion are added here).

Over the years prefectural boards of education and individual schools have worked to improve systems of selecting entrants to upper secondary schools in response to changing conditions and various issues that have confronted upper secondary education. At present, entrance to an upper secondary school is subject to approval by the school’s principal on the basis of scholastic test results, student credentials, and other information. In the case of public upper secondary schools, scholastic tests are administered by the establishing authority, which is the prefectural or municipal board of education. In all prefectures, the tests for all but a few schools cover Japanese language, mathematics, social studies, science, and foreign languages. In the case of private upper secondary schools, the tests commonly cover three to five subjects from Japanese language, mathematics, social studies, science, and foreign languages.

In most prefectures student credentials include scholastic records, records of special activities, behavior and personality records, and attendance records. Also included are details of sports activities, cultural activities, social activities, and volunteer activities. In many prefectures the priority placed on student credentials is equal to or greater than the weight placed on the results of scholastic tests. In the case of private upper secondary schools, student credentials are employed in ways that reflect the characteristics of individual schools. While scholastic test results are an effective way of ensuring objectivity and fairness in the selection process, student credentials enable schools to evaluate other factors, such as day-to-day scholastic performance at the lower secondary school level. Another advantage is that they permit the evaluation of aspects that cannot be ascertained through scholastic tests, such as students’ abilities, qualities, and strengths in nonscholastic areas.

This method of selecting entrants to upper secondary schools has continued to the present, albeit with a number of changes. For example, when the percentage of children entering upper secondary schools surged to 60% and then to 70% during the early 1960s, entrance examination competition, aggravated by the increase in the lower secondary school population, became a social problem. There was particular concern over the detrimental effect that this situation had on attitudes to learning, including a growing tendency to undertake excessive study in preparation for a single entrance examination and a tendency to undervalue day-to-day schoolwork at the lower secondary school level.

In 1966 the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture responded to this situation by establishing the Committee to Discuss Systems of Selecting Entrants to Upper Secondary Schools. The report of this committee, submitted later the same year, called for the implementation of scholastic tests in an appropriate number of subjects and for proper emphasis on student credentials. Individual prefectures responded by working to make improvements in various areas. The scope of scholastic tests, which had previously covered nine subjects in all prefectures, was reduced, and efforts were also made to ensure better utilization of student credentials.

Despite these efforts, however, excessive examination competition continued to cause a variety of problems because of the need to meet the extremely diverse needs of students in an environment in which almost all students who wished to enter upper secondary schools were able to do so. In 1983 the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture asked experts to form the Committee to Improve Systems of Selecting Entrants to Upper Secondary Schools. This committee examined various aspects of the situation and produced a report in 1984. On the basis of this report, the Ministry advised that, on the condition that the information used in selection procedures consist primarily of scholastic test results and student credentials, selection methods be diversified and based on multiple criteria, including extensive use of admission on recommendation and interviews.

Although prefectures and schools have worked to improve their selection procedures over the years, a number of problem areas have been pointed out. For example, most public upper secondary schools still conduct their scholastic tests simultaneously throughout each prefecture, using the same examination questions. There is also still a tendency toward uniformity in such areas as the processing of scholastic test results and student credentials. While this approach offers advantages in terms of fairness and stability, it cannot adequately accommodate the extreme diversity of students’ circumstances, including interests, concerns, abilities, aptitudes, and career paths. The need for improvement in other areas has also been noted, including the fact that the present system does not adequately reflect local conditions or the characteristics of individual schools and subject areas.

Other problems attributed to the systems of selecting entrants to upper secondary schools include the following. First, excessive competition in entrance examinations has a detrimental effect on students’ mental and physical health, and insufficient experience of activities in society and everyday life has a negative influence on character formation. Second, this competition is not conducive to students’ aspiring to enter schools with characteristics that truly match their individual needs but leads them to aim instead to enter schools that are as highly ranked as possible. The exaggerated perception of school rankings puts an excessive psychological pressure on students. Third, the heavy emphasis on standard score in career guidance leads to students being enrolled involuntarily in upper secondary schools.

Since the entrant-selection process produces failures as well as passes, it is extremely difficult to devise a method that is beneficial to everyone. The difficulty of the task cannot be accepted as justification for abandoning efforts to improve systems, however. Clearly, there is a need for continued work to develop better methods that take account of the state of upper secondary education and the impact on lower secondary education, as well as the circumstances of individual regions and schools. Yet it is not possible to achieve significant improvement solely through efforts to develop better systems of entrant selection. Efforts in other areas, such as the reform of upper secondary education, including the development of upper secondary schools with distinctive characteristics, minimization of the tendency to rank upper secondary schools, and reduction of reliance on standard score in lower secondary school career guidance, must be accompanied by continued work by upper secondary school authorities and individual schools to devise better entrant-selection systems.


Despite the efforts to improve entrant-selection systems discussed above, it appears that a variety of problems still exist. The Central Council for Education, which has deliberated on the reform of upper secondary education, has also studied this issue from various perspectives.

The approach to improvement of the entrance examination system advocated in the April 1991 report of the Central Council for Education was basically the same as the direction set forth in the 1984 notice “On Systems of Selecting Entrants to Upper Secondary Schools.” The council advocated various improvements, including further diversification of selection methods and the use of multiple selection criteria. It summed up its perspective on the issue as follows: “The easing of entrance examination competition is vital to the reform of upper secondary education. This must be achieved through a variety of measures, including the use of diversified and multiple evaluation criteria in the selection process. It is vital to liberate students from the psychological pressure resulting from examination competition and the excessive emphasis on standard score in order to create an education system that respects individuality and emphasizes humanity.”

The Ministry of Education, Science and Culture responded by establishing an expert group, the Committee on the Promotion of the Reform of Upper Secondary Education, to study specific improvement measures on the basis of the recommendations in the report of the Central Council for Education. In February 1993 a vice-ministerial notice titled “On Systems of Selecting Entrants to Upper Secondary Schools” was issued. This notice defined approaches to entrant-selection systems and called on all concerned to make increased efforts to improve systems of selecting entrants to national, public, and private upper secondary schools and to work constructively toward increased individuality and diversity in upper secondary education. The notice defined the following basic approaches to the improvement of entrant-selection systems.

To improve systems of selecting entrants to upper secondary schools, it is necessary not only to improve actual selection methods but also to study comprehensive improvement policies that take into account the entire spectrum of lower and upper secondary education. Specifically, this requires the effective alleviation of entrance examination competition based on standard score through the linked implementation of three concepts: the development of distinctive approaches to education in upper secondary schools, the creation of diversified and multiple selection methods that reflect those approaches, and the provision of scholastic guidance and career guidance according to individual needs at the lower secondary school level.

Individual upper secondary schools should increase their efforts to develop distinctive approaches to education. In step with this process, it is necessary to enable upper secondary schools to employ diversified entrant-selection methods that reflect the characteristics of individual schools, courses, sub-courses, and so on, rather than uniform selection methods.

In line with the aims of the new Courses of Study for elementary, lower secondary, and upper secondary schools, which emphasize willingness to learn independently and the ability to think, judge, and express oneself, it is necessary to develop entrant-selection systems that allow these abilities to be appraised appropriately.

It is necessary to evaluate the abilities, aptitudes, and other characteristics of students from various perspectives, to focus on each student’s individuality and strong points, and to appraise those qualities positively.

It is necessary to rectify students’ tendency to choose the upper secondary schools that they wish to enter solely on the basis of standard score and instead to develop approaches that will enable students to base their choice of schools and subject areas on an understanding of the characteristics and content of schools and subject areas and on a positive motivation toward upper secondary school life.

The controversy rages over whether the Nationwide testing is a complete waste of public funds…

“Following last month’s nationwide academic ability assessment for primary and middle school students, a mountain of tasks must be carried out if test results are to be used to improve scholastic performance. ..
According to the ministry, the NAAA’s goal is to help schools discover problems with primary and middle school education and to review the way lessons are taught.
In fiscal 2007, the ministry earmarked about 300 million yen to verify test results and encourage efforts to improve classwork.
All 45 prefectural governments, as well as those of Tokyo and Hokkaido, and 17 major city governments received 2.1 million yen each under the program.
Additional grants were given to 19 prefectures and seven major cities the ministry recognized as having good educational improvement proposals. The grants ranged from 8 million yen to 12 million yen.
The Hiroshima prefectural government was especially quick to respond to the ministry’s educational improvement program.
It conducted detailed analysis of patterns of children’s answers from the April NAAA test.
The prefectural government concluded that children in Hiroshima had weak reading skills, and had trouble summarizing and expressing their ideas intelligibly.
The prefecture’s education experts subsequently proposed that a new kind of classwork be used on an experimental basis. The proposed system asks children to read sentences and present their meanings.
The prefecture’s board of education distributed DVD footage of the experimental classwork to all primary and middle schools in the prefecture, hoping to boost Japanese-language education.
Lack of know-how, budgets

Shizuoka Prefecture and the municipal government of Sendai also analyzed test results in collaboration with local universities. They hope to make good use of the budgetary appropriations from the ministry.
At Akabane Primary School in Kita Ward, Tokyo, a group of teachers has been verifying and analyzing students’ answers to the NAAA questions for information-sharing purposes. This analysis is being conducted without ministry funds.
Very few local governments and schools have been making such efforts, however.
When the ministry asked prefectural governments and major cities to create educational improvement plans in fiscal 2007, 30 local governments failed to make proposals.
Prof. Hiroaki Mimizuka of Ochanomizu University, a specialist in educational sociology, said, “Many local governments lack know-how and funding for proper utilization of the NAAA test results.”
In addition, the ministry’s decision to reduce the educational improvement budget to about 220 million yen for fiscal 2008 has far-reaching repercussions.
The budgetary allocation to Shizuoka tumbled to about 2 million yen this fiscal year from fiscal 2007’s 14 million yen. Because of this, it has had to do away with a system that reemployed former teachers to cover extra arithmetic lessons at primary schools. Currently, it is recruiting university students to cover lessons at a lower cost.
This example shows that efforts to improve educational quality are bound to fail without financial support
Furthermore, many schoolteachers are annoyed with the ministry for announcing last year’s test results in October, two months later than initially planned.
Many teachers have complained that they could not use test results to improve classwork because they were announced halfway through the academic year. ..
Findings from the ministry’s analysis of fiscal 2007 student tests and teacher questionnaires contained nothing new.
Many of the results are already well known: “Children who have the habit of eating breakfast tend to score high marks,” and “Schools whose students had high scores teach the Japanese language conscientiously.”
In an apparent effort to draw more useful information from test results, the ministry set up a group of experts in December to analyze results and study ways of utilizing them. The group is still in the trial-and-error phase of analysis.
The ministry earmarked 7.7 billion yen for conducting the test in fiscal 2007 and 5.8 billion yen this fiscal year, saying the NAAA should be set at least until fiscal 2011.
Another professor of educational sociology, Hiroyoshi Shimizu of Osaka University, warned, “Because methods of test result analysis are not established, a new round of testing occurs while last year’s test result analysis remain unfinished.”
“The current state of things is tantamount to wasting taxpayers’ money,” he said.
The ministry should squarely accept such criticism if it wants the national scholastic assessment test to continue.
The ministry should make test results public before finishing test result analysis and inform individual schools of the results as swiftly as possible. This would encourage schools to improve lesson content on their own.
In addition, the ministry should adopt a commonly shared framework to enhance children’s scholastic abilities to be used by students and teachers nationwide. ” (Excerpt from Natl scholastic test results left untapped May. 27, 2008 Yomiuri Shimbun)


JAPAN to conduct scholastic tests next year by Kwan Weng Kin (2006, Straits Times) on the grading process and purpose of credentials

On the selection process of upper secondary school candidates See this page

EDITORIAL: Achievement tests 10/26/2007 The Asahi Shimbun

Natl scholastic test results left untapped May. 27, 2008 Yomiuri Shimbun

Ministry plans comprehensive scholastic testing Sunday, July 10, 2005 Japan Times

Tottori opts not to reveal results of nationwide achievement tests Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2008 Japan Times (Excerpts … The Tottori prefectural board of education is expected to uphold its decision not to disclose detailed results of the nationwide achievement test, overriding a local panel’s recommendation, board officials said Monday. The decision comes a month after a prefectural panel urged the board to reverse its earlier decision not to release information about last year’s achievement test involving elementary and junior high school students. Several parents opposed disclosing the results. So far, no local authority has disclosed detailed results. The education ministry fears disclosing detailed results of the nationwide test could lead to fierce competition and an overt ranking of schools. It has instructed local boards of education not to announce them. Tottori Prefecture has an ordinance, however, requiring the detailed results of prefecture-wide achievement tests be disclosed except for classes smaller than 10 students. The nondisclosure decision may trigger criticism that it goes against the ordinance… The issue arose in October when a local newspaper reporter unsuccessfully requested that the Tottori board of education disclose detailed achievement test results. After the board rejected the request, the reporter lodged an objection. The prefectural panel on information disclosure recommended July 8 that the board rescind its decision. Since then, the board has held meetings with municipal officials and parents, many of whom expressed misgivings about announcing detailed results, prefectural board officials said. …end of excerpt…)

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