Exams seek students’ opinions / High school entrance tests look for well-expressed original thoughts 

The Yomiuri Shimbun (Dec. 31, 2010)

More and more high school entrance exams are asking students to express their own opinions on various topics, rather than just repeat facts that they have memorized.

Observers say this is one reason Japanese students performed better in the latest reading tests by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Program for International Student Assessment. Such questions, which are aimed at evaluating examinees’ ability to think independently, may become the key to success in future entrance exams, even in tests early next year, they said.

Students who took this spring’s unified entrance examination for Osaka prefectural high schools saw a chart titled “calendar of biological evolution” on the Japanese test.

The chart used calendar dates to illustrate the history of biological evolution–for example, it showed the first organism appearing on Earth on New Year’s Day, oxygen emerging on July 2 and a multicellular organism on Nov. 4. It took until Dec. 2 for a mammal to be born, and after the evolution of mankind, the Industrial Revolution was marked at 23:59:59 on Dec. 31.

After looking at the chart, students had to write what they learned from it using the words “human beings” and “birth.” Correct answers should refer to the fact that mankind appeared on Earth quite recently.

Another question asked students to write what they thought was important for the future of human beings in 50 characters or less.

“These kind of questions test students’ ability to choose important information, develop their own opinions and express their views intelligibly,” said an official of the Osaka Prefectural Board of Education in charge of the high school entrance exams. “Recent examinations include questions that the exam creators had to rack their brains to come up with.”

In the latest PISA tests conducted in 2009, Japanese students ranked eighth in reading, up seven ranks from the previous test in 2006. The tests have been given to 15-year-old students every three years since 2000, at which time Japanese students also ranked eighth in reading.

Some observers were surprised that the improvement occurred before the introduction of new teaching guidelines that require more content to be taught in classrooms.

Keitaro Kamata, chief researcher at Benesse Educational Research and Development Center, said one reason Japanese students did better in 2009 was the increase of questions similar to those in the PISA test in high school entrance examinations, i.e. requiring students to think on their own rather than answer questions mechanically.

According to Kamata, questions asking students to address their views appeared on unified entrance examinations for prefectural high schools in such prefectures as Aomori, Iwate, Kanagawa, Saitama and Tochigi.

In Aomori Prefecture’s test, a question about chimpanzees contained an illustration of one chimpanzee giving a drink to another, but only doing so after being asked by the other chimpanzee. Students were asked to compare the chimpanzee’s action to that of a human being.

Correct answers contained such terms as “mutual assistance.”

Questions asking students to express their views were first found in entrance examinations for integrated public middle and high schools, which were established in 1999. According to the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, such schools preferred questions requiring students to think on their own to questions just testing their knowledge.

One such school is Municipal Oshukan Middle School in Meguro Ward, Tokyo. In this year’s entrance examination, it showed a dictionary definition of the word “michi,” which has such meanings as “road” or “passage,” and asked students to write down their thoughts in 500 to 600 characters.

“The question tests whether students can think and express their opinions logically,” Vice Principal Tadao Yanagisawa said.

Kamata said the proportion of questions requiring students to express their opinions in high school entrance examinations is still small, but has been increasing in recent years.

“Such questions require students to express their own opinions using their own words, unlike conventional questions asking them to extract phrases and expressions from the text,” Kamata said.

“If entrance exams change, so will classes. I think teachers will spend more time nurturing students’ ability to think and express themselves in the future,” he said.