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Students in Osaka use English ability to help get accepted into high schools of choice

Students are seen taking the Osaka prefectural high school examination for the current academic year in Osaka's Tennoji Ward. Outside tests for the English language will begin to be used from next fiscal year. (Mainichi)

The Osaka Prefectural Board of Education is set to start allowing English tests such as the Eiken Test in Practical English Proficiency to be used during admission examinations to public high schools from the 2017 academic year.

    While the number of universities implementing similar schemes is on the rise, this is the first such move involving public high school admissions.

    The education board has stated that its goal is to exercise a balanced approach in evaluating students' skills -- while also stimulating a desire among students to begin studying English at an early stage.

    The initiative is rooted in a sense of concern for the English language skills of elementary and junior high school students in Osaka Prefecture, which are among the lowest-ranked in the country.

    It remains to be seen, however, whether other prefectures will follow suit, given the high level of difficulty and the financial costs associated with the effort -- an observation that has caused some experts to question its effectiveness.

    "Scores from the regular entrance examination are not the sole deciding factor (under the new initiative), so students benefit in that they are able to utilize the English language skills that they have worked hard to cultivate," notes a representative from the high school section of the Osaka prefectural education board. "We hope to introduce this as a new objective, as well as to change existing perceptions of English to help boost students' overall abilities."

    The education board is utilizing three separate tools for the examinations: the TOEFL iBT test, IELTS (International English Language Testing System), and the Eiken test. If students submit their test results prior to the time of application, their entrance examination scores will be converted based upon the level of difficulty. And while applicants take the same English language examination as other examinees, the higher of the two test scores will be considered when deciding if a student is admitted or not.

    The Osaka Prefectural Board of Education decided which external tests would be utilized and how to convert the test scores upon discussions with outside experts.

    There are no restrictions on sitting outside examinations, which may be taken as many times as a student wishes until a high score is achieved. In order to be considered for conversion to entrance examination scoring, however, the Eiken test must be at least level 2. The required level of difficulty is extremely high, then, since Eiken level 3 -- which is viewed as equivalent to the average language level of a junior high school graduate -- does not meet the criteria for test score conversion.

    Financial difficulties are also associated with the initiative, as test fees must be covered by the students. The cost for the TOEFL examination is US$230 (around 24,320 yen), while IELTS costs 25,380 yen -- both quite expensive. Eiken level 2, meanwhile, costs 5,800 yen.

    Some educators are skeptical about how many students will actually use the system.

    "An outside examination is too difficult for junior high school students," commented a 53-year-old male teacher at a municipal junior high school in Osaka Prefecture. "My students are all at different levels in their language ability, and because I have to teach regular classes, I don't have time to spend (on this initiative)."

    "I did let my students know that the program is available," he added, "but I am not putting any special effort into promoting it."

    A 55-year-old male teacher who runs a cram school for junior high and high school students in the city of Ibaraki, Osaka Prefecture, notes, "It is probably only a fraction of junior high school students -- such as those who have experience living abroad -- who would consider taking an outside examination at that stage in their education."

    Consequently, he does not include materials relating to the outside tests within his curriculum.

    The utilization of external tests for the English language portion of entrance examinations constitutes part of the English education reform that is being implemented by the central government.

    The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) suggested the move in a report that was drawn up following a meeting of experts convened in 2014.

    In addition to the reading and writing skills that have normally been included in entrance examinations, such as grammar and translation, the external tests have the advantage of including the additional skills of speaking and listening -- as well as balancing all four different types of skills. It is particularly difficult, however, to assess the speaking skills of individual test-takers within the group-type setting of entrance examinations.

    Utilization of the outside tests has been spreading since 2015 -- particularly within private universities.

    Meanwhile, numerous public schools in other prefectures are beginning to promote the outside examinations during class time.

    During an inquiry undertaken by MEXT in fiscal 2015 on the state of English language education throughout Japan, it was learned that Chiba Prefecture -- which had the highest English language level in the country among third-year junior high school students -- offered the Eiken IBA examination, which is a simple version of the Eiken test that evaluates abilities in reading and listening, to nearly all junior high school students in the prefecture.

    Akita Prefecture, which had the second highest scores, began in 2013 to cover the entire cost of Eiken test fees for all of its third-year junior high school students, and has set a goal for them to pass at least level 4 of the examination, which conforms to the general junior high school student level.

    "Along with offering course instruction in line with students' abilities, (the offering of the Eiken examination) has proven to be effective," a representative from the Chiba Prefectural Board of Education said by way of analysis.

    An Akita prefectural education board spokesperson noted similar effects, commenting, "When (students) pass their desired examination level, it appears that they feel a sense of accomplishment -- as well as an increase in both their enthusiasm and their grades."

    Meanwhile, a MEXT official explained that "there are previous examples of Eiken scores being considered along with recommendation-based entrance examinations -- but we have never before heard of a specific prefecture utilizing an outside test for entrance examinations at all of its public high schools."

    "We'd like for the initiative to be implemented in a manner whereby there will be no discrepancies in terms of students' ability to take the tests, such as the location of the test venue or the cost," the official said, calling for the tests to be fair.

    The Osaka prefectural education board plans to include developmental questions on the English language section of its public high school entrance examination for the 2017 fiscal year, which have a high level of difficulty. It also aims to increase the distribution of listening-related problems, and to write all questions exclusively in English.

    During its 2015 educational inquiry, MEXT found that third-year junior high school students from Osaka Prefecture came in 42nd place.

    A representative from the prefectural education board -- which found itself desperate to tackle this situation -- commented, "The external examination is completely optional, and is simply one effort that we are using in order to increase (students') English language abilities. We would like to pique their interest in the language through a number of different measures."

    Hideyuki Taura, a professor of English at Ritsumeikan University who was formerly a teacher at a prefectural high school in Osaka, noted that "the outside examinations were originally utilized in order to determine the English language abilities of students who wished to study overseas -- and as such, were not intended to be used for junior high school students."

    "While the tests may serve as a source of inspiration in terms of the questions that are presented, it is questionable whether this will have a positive effect," he added. "It is more important to increase the quality of the teachers, and to enhance education across the board at all schools in the prefecture."

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