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Editorial: Time to verify effects of all-Japan achievement tests

The education ministry's nationwide achievement tests for sixth-graders and third-year junior high school students have been conducted for a decade, exposing children's study trends while raising questions about whether the results of the tests are effectively reflected in their everyday studies.

The results of this spring's achievement tests covering the Japanese language and mathematics were released by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology on Aug. 28, highlighting the students' weak spots in handling questions testing their applied skills compared to basic knowledge quizzes -- an annual trend over the past decade. At the same time, the results showed no major changes in the list of top ranking prefectures with high average percentages of questions answered correctly.

In the achievement tests conducted in the 2016 school year, the education ministry purposely gave some of the same questions as those in the past to compare the students' answers. As a result, it turned out that the correct answer rate had not changed for most of those questions. This suggests that there were scant positive changes in children's academic abilities, with no signs of their weakness in applied skills improving -- raising the question about whether the test results are utilized in advancing teaching methods.

In the meantime, local governments remain highly conscious about the test results, based on which prefectures -- as well as government-designated major cities from this academic year -- are ranked from top to bottom.

Last year, a school teacher filed a complaint with the education minister, criticizing his school's practice of having students solve past questions from the nationwide achievement tests during regular class hours at the informal instruction of the local board of education. The education ministry's obsession with a complete enumeration survey in conducting the nationwide achievement tests is pushing local authorities to go to such extremes as to prepare students for the achievement tests during class.

The aims of the nationwide achievement tests are to grasp and analyze the students' academic abilities and learning conditions and to improve teachers' classroom instructions and teaching methods -- not to rank prefectures and cities by test scores. For this goal to be achieved, a complete survey is not necessary. If the ministry wants to find out students' scholastic trends among prefectures, a sampling survey would suffice.

From this year's achievement tests, the education ministry started releasing the average correct answer rate with integer value, rounding off the number after the decimal point, as part of efforts to curb excessive competition among local bodies. At the same time, however, the ministry began announcing the average accurate answer rate for each of the 20 major cities as well.

A complete survey costs around 5 billion yen each, and the education ministry has already spent a total of over 50 billion yen on the nationwide achievement tests. For the government's education policy, it is highly necessary to secure resources for assigning a sufficient number of teachers to each school, among other measures. From a cost-benefit perspective, conducting achievement tests in the current manner ought to be called into question.

Both the latest and previous achievement tests have already shed light upon children's academic realities and the challenges they face. The education ministry is urged to switch to a sampling survey in carrying out the achievement tests and turn its other resources to enhancing measures to address uncovered challenges and to support extremely overworked teachers.

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