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Don't freeze English education reform

From The Japan Times:

The government last week announced it was putting off the planned introduction of private-sector English proficiency tests as part of standardized university entrance exams next April after the new system was criticized for many problems regarding access to testing locations and higher examination fees.

The current English-language component of the standardized entrance exams only assesses reading and listening comprehension. By using private-sector tests that also check writing and speaking ability, there were great expectations that students would be evaluated in a more comprehensive manner and thereby would prepare better to communicate in English.

The announcement was welcomed by many education experts who felt this was the best way to avoid confusion involving the new tests. The ministry will review the system for more than a year while aiming to introduce a new system for around the 2024 school year. However, this will mean the shift to the new test system will be postponed until 2024, and hence the reform of English education will also be delayed. Since Japan already lags behind other countries in terms of English speaking and writing skills, it can’t waste any time in implementing English education reform.

Various problems with introducing the private-sector exams have been pointed out for a long time, but the education ministry was slow to respond to such concerns. When education minister Koichi Hagiuda made a gaffe over the fairness of such tests, saying students should compete for university spots “in accordance with their (financial) standing,” it sparked even more criticism and calls for a postponement increased.

Some media reports pointed out that the government made a swift decision about the delay because it wanted to avert any negative impact on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s new Cabinet. But the decision is undoubtedly a severe blow to the students who have been preparing for the private-sector exams, as well as the private-sector test operators. The government should be held responsible for this mess.

Under the proposed system, six private-sector institutions were to provide seven kinds of tests, including the GTEC (Global Test of English Communication), TOEFL, Cambridge English test and Japan’s Eiken test starting next April.

Students would have been able to take the tests twice between April and December during their final year of high school, and universities would have required certain scores to apply for admission or added points based on the results to their independent entrance exams. But some critics said the new system would discriminate against students in remote areas because not all of the proficiency tests would be offered in every prefecture. The fees for taking the exams also varied, with some costing over ¥20,000. This meant students from wealthy families and those living in big cities will have had an advantage.

If the government had stepped in to provide financial support or help private-test operators find test venues in different regions, it might have been possible to reduce these disparities. Before completely giving up on the new system, it should have considered whether it was really impossible to address these problems.

The government must make every effort to ease the anxiety of high school students caused by the change in plans. At the same time, it has to move faster to reform Japan’s English education system to enable students to acquire more practical communication skills.

In recent years, China, South Korea and many other non-English speaking countries have been pushing hard to enhance their English education, and as a result their skills appear to have improved dramatically.

English proficiency rankings illustrate this trend. A 2019 study by EF Education First, a Switzerland-based company that offers language training, ranked the Netherlands at the top of 100 countries surveyed. Looking at Asian countries, Japan came in at a lowly 53rd, far behind South Korea at 37th and China at 40th.

China started strengthening its English education programs in 2001 when Beijing was selected to host the 2008 Olympics. That year, China started to introduce English education four times a week for third-graders nationwide. South Korea began teaching English twice a week starting with the third grade in 1997. In Japan, English classes were introduced in 2011 for fifth and sixth graders, but just for once a week. The education ministry has decided to teach English to third graders in 2020 — almost 20 years behind South Korea and China.

This week, the Liberal Democratic Party’s panel on education passed a resolution urging the ministry to craft a comprehensive English exam that can test four key skills — reading, writing, listening and speaking. The resolution also calls on the government to address the problems surrounding the private-sector exams and construct a framework where these four skills can be evaluated.

It will take five years before the new English tests will begin in 2024, but the government must not freeze Japan’s English education reform for five years.