University applicants across the country are now preparing for the standardized entrance exam which will have a huge impact on their post-secondary options.
In recent years, policymakers have attempted to revamp the test, run by the National Center for College Entrance Exams, from scratch to meet the needs of changing times. English was at the heart of their discussions, amid growing frustrations that few Japanese students learn to speak the language fluently despite years of study.
Below are some key questions about taking the test, teaching English in Japan, and what the future holds for language learners here:
What does the test cover?
Previously known as the ‘national center test’, the standardized college entrance exam is mostly taken by high school graduates in mid-January and is one of the most important tests in Japan, with an annual attendance of around 500,000. This is a primary requirement for many students wishing to enter national and public universities and a good number of private universities also incorporate the examination into their selection processes, which adds still in its importance.
Of the batch of subjects assessed on the exam, English is the most commonly taken, with 99% of applicants having their English proficiency checked last year.
Last year was the first time that the multiple choice exam took place since it was renamed kyts test (“Common test”) and the radical changes have resulted in a major overhaul of the English part of the test.
The reading portion of the English section, for example, removed traditional questions on grammar and idioms and instead focused on assessing students’ abilities to navigate everyday scenarios, such as texting someone. friend or complete the online registration for a musician’s fan club.
Despite the greater 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?
The debut of the revamped test last year may have marked a much bigger change. The Department of Education was originally considering outsourcing the English component of the test to the private sector, which it was believed would have the know-how to assess the four core language skills of reading, listening , writing and speaking.
The latter two are often cited as weak points for Japanese students, and the hope was that making the assessment of writing and speaking skills compulsory within the standardized framework would motivate students to work harder on those skills.
But private sector proficiency tests, including the Practical English Proficiency Test (Eiken), the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), and the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), are often expensive and inherently disadvantageous for students at lower levels. -income households. Testing centers may also be less accessible for students in rural areas.
Amid concerns over inequality, the outsourcing initiative was abruptly scrapped in 2019, causing confusion among students, teachers and university officials. Last summer, the plan was definitively canceled.
Why was an overhaul of the English exam deemed necessary?
There are long-standing, albeit contested, criticisms that teaching English in Japanese schools tends to focus on analyzing and translating sentences that are too complex, so that few students graduate. with fluency in the language.
In order to deviate from this book-learning approach, the Education Department’s advisory board in 2014 requested that the college entrance exam assess the four foundational skills in the hope that this would help. the next generation to use English more proactively in the age of globalization.
This is not the first time, however, that the government has attempted an overhaul of English language testing – listening comprehension was first added in January 2006.
What else has the government done to improve the English proficiency of Japanese students?
The Department of Education’s efforts to improve English skills among the country’s youth have been underway for decades now.
In fact, despite the common belief in how English instruction is delivered, some critics are now claiming that the increased emphasis on English conversation in Japanese classrooms has come at the expense of reading skills and grammar knowledge of students.
This trend dates back to 1989, when ministry guidelines first declared “communication” to be the goal of learning English, leading to the establishment of a new oral communication subject in the English language. secondary schools. As part of a plan adopted in 2002, efforts were made to increase the number of assistant language teachers hired from abroad and to improve the language skills of English teachers in Japan.
In a move that shocked the education sector, it was decided in 2009 that high school English teachers – most of whom are non-native speakers – should in principle teach in English. The change, in effect since April 2013, has now spread to colleges, where teachers also began to strive for an all-English environment during English classes last year, in line with revised program guidelines. In elementary schools, too, English is now an official subject for 12th graders.
However, there is debate as to whether decades of effort have paid off. According to 2019 data compiled by the Ministry of Education, Japanese still ranks poorly in a series of internationally recognized English assessment tests.
In the internet version of the TOEFL, for example, the average score of test takers in Japan was 72, the lowest among 37 OECD countries, according to ministry data.
Where is English education going now?
The end of the plan to simultaneously assess students’ reading, listening, writing and speaking skills on a standardized exam was a blow to many who advocated more practical English lessons in schools. .
Among them is Takamichi Nakamura, teacher and head of the English department at Tokyo Metropolitan Hibiya High School, one of the best secondary schools in Japan.
“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 to assess the assessment of students’ four language skills,” he said.
But at the same time, a growing number of private universities are now deciding to give students the option to submit their results for private sector tests – including Eiken, TOEFL iBT, and IELTS – as part of their qualifications.
Rikkyo University in Tokyo, for example, last year took the drastic step of abolishing its own English admission tests and instead encouraged applicants to take one of these private proficiency exams.
The idea was to recruit students who were equally gifted in the four fundamental skills of English with the aim of “fostering world leaders”.
Before the change, Rikkyo’s own English testing system almost exclusively assessed students’ reading skills through multiple-choice questions. Considering the sheer number of applicants – around 70,000 – during its annual week-long entrance exam period, “we just don’t have the manpower or the time to test their capabilities. one-on-one expression, “said Tsutomu Wada, spokesperson for the university’s admissions office. “No university does.”
But whether college entrance exams change or not, today’s Japanese teens are more inclined to learn authentic English than their compatriots of a generation or two ago. said Kenichi Ishihara, an official at the Sundai Educational Institute.
In Japan, “before the introduction of smartphones around 2010 which dramatically expanded internet access, it was difficult to speak and listen to English, unless you aspire to or have specific professions,” Ishihara said. .
“But today you’re just a few clicks away from watching Shohei Ohtani play in the big leagues in real time or learning English from YouTubers.… Now we’re in a time when these resources of Informal English learning tailored to individual tastes are available to students.
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