University exam negative washback effect on English education

Mike Guest / Special to The Daily Yomiuri

OK, I know what you are thinking–and it’s not their fault. Those university entrance exams–the preparation for which seem to outweigh everything else in Japanese high schools in terms of importance–you know how they are supposed have a negative washback effect on high school English education? They’re supposed to be the cause of dull and unproductive drudgery in high school English classrooms from Hokkaido to Okinawa, right? Well, if those classes are in fact meaningless, mindless drudgery, it’s not the fault of university entrance exams.

If anything the problem is not washback, the influence of university entrance exams on teaching and learning English at the high school level, but what I’ll call “washforth.” University entrance exams are hampered by high school educational norms and not vice versa. Why? Because university entrance exams largely strive to reflect the expectations of high school and juku teachers as well as the nationally mandated curriculum. So, when it comes to making exams the universities have their hands tied.

Take, for example, the nationally mandated English vocabulary list–the collection of lexical items that students are expected to “know” upon high school graduation. Tests set by the National Center for University Entrance Examinations (known as the Center Shiken) will never use a word that does not appear on the list. Individual university entrance exams also have a strong tendency to conform to the word list. Items that are not on the list will almost always be given a gloss, usually in Japanese, if they appear on an entrance exam.

The same goes for grammar forms. The Center Shiken rarely focuses upon grammar questions directly (these days grammar is tested more as a means to understanding wider texts than for its own sake), but if and when it does it will not deviate from what has been covered in the mandated curriculum.

University test-makers will invariably take all this into consideration when developing an entrance exam. They don’t want angry high school or juku teachers, whose ratio of students entering prestigious institutions may be the primary focus of their livelihoods, claiming unfairness, or have their tests held up to public scrutiny for criticism.

Related to this is an aspect of test-making called “face validity” which refers to an exam meeting the expectations of examinees in terms of form and content. Too much variation from set standards or precedents causes a loss of face validity. So, it is not so much the university entrance exams that dictate the form and content of high school education but rather high school and juku teachers who demand or expect face validity.

But despite this, there remains something of a paradox. After all, a cursory glance at most university entrance exams would seem to indicate that the level of difficulty is still greater than what the average high school students encounters in his or her lessons and textbooks–a phenomenon known as the “articulation” problem. How can this occur?

For one thing, the mandated high school English curriculum is too wide and too far-reaching to expect students to have really absorbed all that comes under its umbrella. After all, what does it mean that one has “done” the chapter on, say, the subjunctive mood? Does it mean that students can now readily understand the nuances of meaning conveyed by this grammatical form in English? Can they be expected to reproduce it accurately within meaningful contexts? Can one really expect students to do any more than perhaps identify the item as being katei-ho (in the subjunctive mood) and maybe take a vague stab at how this particular form might be processed into meaning in an English speaker’s mind? Frankly speaking, you can’t simply “do” a chapter on grammar forms, say that they’ve been covered so now the students should “know” them. It’s ridiculous.

The same goes for vocabulary (or, more accurately, lexis). Let me give you an invented sample passage: “Inasmuch as people may get to know their neighbors, the lack of a fundamental sense of social trust on a wider scale nonetheless restricts our ability to relate to others.”

Now, there is not one word in that sentence that falls outside of the mandated word list–but it is clearly a very difficult sentence. Does the fact that students have supposedly learned (whatever “learned” means) the word “as” imply that they will understand the set phrase “inasmuch as”? How about the odd usage of “get”? What exactly does the “wider scale” refer to? Even if I understand the meaning of the word “restrict,” what is the nature of this restriction?

Imagine if examinees were to be asked an entrance exam question based upon this passage. It would be pretty difficult, right? But hey, it was–ahem–covered in high school so…

Here’s another problem. A good university entrance exam question would be one that demands examinees show a wider, more comprehensive range of their skills, a question that requires them to think and interpret, and process meaning, right? OK. Let’s say an entrance exam has a passage where the students have read about how downloading free music online has altered the independent music scene. Now, imagine a question (in Japanese) like this: “The passage offers three explanations as to how free downloading might have actually help independent musicians increase their sales and reputations. 1) Please summarize these three reasons in English and 2) give your opinion in English as to whether you think these explanations are legitimate or not.

A good, comprehensive task, don’t you think? But a lot of teachers in high schools and juku wouldn’t like it. They’d think it was unfair. Some would claim that they haven’t had their students practice expository writing in high school. Others would say that having students comment on the legitimacy of a writer’s argument is simply too difficult. And some would argue that the question allows for too much subjectivity for accurate and fair grading. After all, what is the correct answer? (Sample correct answers are required for university entrance exams.)

As a result, test-makers at the university level will often eschew such questions. So, while this type of question could very well foster positive washback on to high school education–such as developing expository writing skills, understanding rhetorical flow, commenting upon meaningful discourse, and summarizing–it would likely be criticized or rejected precisely because these skills haven’t been practiced in high schools. Instead, task forms and content that will be more soothing to students as per their expectations–based upon the practice tests they do in high school and at juku, as well as the norms of past entrance exams–will be chosen. Face validity is maintained.

In fact, some university entrance exams, including the Center Shiken, have managed to evolved over the years to reflect a wider variety of skills and cover a wider number of discourse types, but this has occurred despite the resistance and protestations of many teachers involved in preparing high school students for entrance exams, teachers who invariably want questions with clear, “teachable,” discrete-point answers. Such teachers want the old system to be perpetuated no matter the educational cost. After all, it helps them get their students into the better universities.

Such is washforth.


Guest is an associate professor of English at Miyazaki University. He can be reached at

(Apr. 1, 2008) Daily Yomiuri Online

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