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education in Japan?


By Tomohiro Osaki for The Japan Times

Across the country, university hopefuls are now gearing up for the standardized entrance exam that will greatly impact their post-secondary options.

Recent years have seen policymakers try to revamp the test, run by the National Center for University Entrance Examinations, from the ground up in order to respond to the needs of the changing times. At the heart of their discussions has been English amid growing frustrations that few Japanese students learn to speak the language fluently despite years of studying.

Below are some key questions about the test, English-language education in Japan and what the future holds for learners of the language here:

What does the test cover?

Previously known as the “National Center Test,” the standardized university entrance exam is primarily taken by graduating high school seniors in mid-January and is one of the biggest tests in Japan, with an annual participation of about 500,000. It is an all-important requirement for many students wishing to enter national and public universities and a good number of private universities also incorporate the exam into their screening processes, further adding to its importance.

Among the batch of subjects assessed under the exam, English is the most commonly taken, with 99% of test-takers having had their English proficiency vetted last year.

Last year was the first time that the multiple-choice exam was held since it was rebranded as the kyōtsū test (“common test”) and the sweeping changes featured a major overhaul of the English portion of the test.

The reading part of the English section, for example, did away with traditional questions about grammar and idioms and instead focused on evaluating students’ abilities to navigate everyday scenarios, such as texting a friend or completing the online registration for a musician’s fan club.

Despite the heavier emphasis on a more practical understanding of English, the test only assessed students’ reading and listening skills, as was the case with the previous format.

What is controversial about the test?

Last year’s debut of the revamped test might have marked a far bigger change. The education ministry originally envisaged outsourcing the English component of the test to the private sector, which it was believed would have the know-how to assess the four foundational language skills of reading, listening, writing and speaking.

The last two are often cited as weak points for Japanese students and the hope was that mandating the evaluation of writing and speaking skills in the standardized framework would motivate students to work harder on those skills.

But private-sector proficiency tests, including the Test in Practical English Proficiency (Eiken), the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), are often expensive and innately disadvantageous to students from lower-income households. Test centers can also be less accessible for students in rural areas.

Amid concerns over inequality, the outsourcing initiative was abruptly shelved in 2019, creating confusion for students, teachers and university officials. Last summer, the plan was permanently canceled.

Why was an overhaul of the English exam deemed necessary?

There is long-standing, albeit disputed, criticism that English-language education in Japanese schools tends to fixate on the parsing and translation of overly complex sentences, with the result being that few students graduate with fluency in the language.

In order to depart from this book-learning approach, the education ministry’s advisory council in 2014 called for the university entrance exam to assess all four foundational skills in the hopes that doing so would help the next generation to use English more proactively in the age of globalization.

It is not the first time, however, that the government has attempted a revamp of English-language testing — listening comprehension was added for the first time in January 2006.

What else has the government done to improve Japanese students’ fluency in English?

The education ministry’s endeavor to improve English-speaking skills among the country’s youth has been in progress for decades now.

In fact, despite the common belief of how English instruction is given, some critics now say that the increased emphasis on English conversation in classrooms in Japan has come at the expense of students’ reading skills and grammar knowledge.

That trend dates back to 1989, when the ministry’s curriculum guidelines declared for the first time that “communication” was the objective of English learning, leading to the establishment of a new oral communication subject in high schools. Under a plan adopted in 2002, efforts were made to increase the number of assistant language teachers hired from overseas and improve the language skills of English teachers in Japan.

In a move that shocked the teaching sector, it was decided in 2009 that high school English teachers — most of whom are non-native speakers — would in principle need to conduct their classes in English. That change, in effect since April 2013, has now spilled over to middle schools, where teachers also began striving for an all-English environment during English classes last year, per the revised curriculum guidelines. In elementary schools, too, English is now an official subject for senior pupils.

Whether the decadeslong efforts have paid off, however, is up for debate. According to 2019 data compiled by the education ministry, Japanese still ranked poorly in a series of internationally recognized English assessment tests.

In the internet-based version of TOEFL, for example, the average score of test-takers in Japan totaled 72, the lowest among 37 OECD nations, ministry data showed.

Where is English-language education headed now?

The termination of the plan to simultaneously evaluate students’ reading, listening, writing and speaking skills as part of a standardized exam was a blow to many who had been advocating for more practical English lessons in schools.

Among them is Takamichi Nakamura, a teacher and head of the English Department at Tokyo Metropolitan Hibiya High School — one of Japan’s top secondary schools.

“Personally, I was disappointed,” said Nakamura, whose classes include presentations, debates and academic writing in English. The latest development “put a damper on the momentum for valuing the assessment of all four language skills of students,” he said.

But at the same time, an increasing number of private universities are now deciding to give students the option of submitting their scores from private-sector tests — including Eiken, TOEFL iBT and IELTS — as part of their qualifications.

Rikkyo University in Tokyo, for example, took the drastic step last year of abolishing its own English admission testing and instead encouraged applicants to take any of those privately run proficiency exams.

The idea was to recruit students equally adept at the four foundational skills of English under the goal of “fostering global leaders.”

Before the change, Rikkyo’s own English testing system almost exclusively assessed students’ reading competence through multiple-choice questions. Given the sheer number of test-takers – about 70,000 – during its annual weeklong entrance exam period, “we simply don’t have the manpower or the time to vet their speaking abilities one-on-one,” said Tsutomu Wada, spokesperson for the university’s admissions office. “No universities do.”

But whether university entrance exams change or not, Japanese teens today are increasingly more apt to familiarize themselves with authentic English than their compatriots a generation or two ago, said Kenichi Ishihara, an official from Sundai Educational Institute.

In Japan, “before the introduction of smartphones in around 2010 that significantly widened access to the internet, there had been a hurdle to speaking and listening to English, unless you were aspiring for or engaged in specific occupations,” Ishihara said.

“But today, you are just a few clicks away from watching Shohei Ohtani play in the major leagues in real-time or learning English from YouTubers. … We’re now in an era where these casual English-learning resources tailored for individual tastes are available to students.”