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Editorial: New university entrance exams must maintain fairness

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology has revealed the details of a new standardized university admission exam system set to be introduced in the 2020 academic year.

The main pillars of the plan are use of private English tests such as TOEFL and the Eiken Test in Practical English Proficiency for the English portion of the exam, and the introduction of descriptive questions in the math and Japanese sections. As these changes go beyond the basic framework of the current standardized test, it is necessary to guarantee the continued fairness of the exam system.

Under the education ministry proposal for the exam's English component, third-year high school students could take the test up to twice between April and December and use the better of the two results for applying to university. The ministry foresees using a whopping 10 different test types, but each of them would have to be certified by the National Center for University Entrance Examinations (NCUEE) to make sure their content corresponds to government curriculum guidelines.

However, private English exams are held at varying venues and varying times per year. Furthermore, while test-takers in urban areas will have numerous exam options, it is possible that residents of Japan's regional areas will have far less choice.

There is also a problem with exam fees. For example, it costs 5,800 yen to take the Eiken Level 2 exam, while some English tests cost upwards of 25,000 yen per sitting. The education ministry says it will call on the exam companies to give discounts, but there is a serious risk that the range of test options available will effectively be determined by the test-taker's household income.

The exam results will apparently be reported according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), a six-level international standard for expressing language ability. But using the same scale to fairly evaluate results from a number of different exams with varying content and difficulty must be problematic.

The education ministry in fact put forward two proposals for the English component of the next generation of university entrance exams: one for the complete privatization of the exams in academic 2020, and one that would use the current computer-read answer sheet format alongside the private tests until the 2023 academic year. The ministry is calling for public input on the two options. Whichever one it settles on, care must be taken to avoid confusion at test sites.

Meanwhile, the ministry proposal for the Japanese language section calls for questions requiring 80- to 120-character descriptions, and the new math section will test knowledge of formulae and problem-solving techniques. There will apparently be about three questions in each of these sections, and grading will be done by private firms.

The description problems are intended to test the exam takers' ability to think and express themselves. However, the answers will necessarily be short to make checking the responses of the some 500,000 people who take the national university entrance exam annually practical. We wonder if it is in fact possible to gauge a test taker's critical faculties in such a brief passage.

Furthermore, the descriptions will be graded on a level-based scale, not awarded points. If it is difficult for the test takers to grasp how well they actually performed, it could hinder their university applications. Therefore, clear grading standards must be announced.

The education ministry intends to finalize its plans for the new exam system in June following public input. We call on the ministry to also reflect the opinions of Japan's high schools and universities in the new format, and build a stable exam system.

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