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Editorial: System of private English tests for university entrance on rocky path

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology is set to implement new standardized entrance exams in 2020 in place of the National Center Test for University Admissions, which will include privately administered English tests. The ministry has authorized eight tests run by seven organizations, including the Test in Practical English Proficiency (Eiken) and Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).

However, there are several problems with this approach.

First, the format and aim of each test are different. TOEFL, for example, gauges the ability of students aspiring to enter universities in Europe and North America. The Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC), meanwhile, tests the ability of students to use English in business. The difficulty of the tests and the questions are not the same.

Measurement of speaking ability was a major reason for introducing private testing but in this area, too, a mixture of methods are used, from recordings to interviews.

Students are able to take two private English tests from April to December during their third year of high school. The results will be converted into a grade in the six-level Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), an international standard for rating language ability. But is it really possible to bring exams with different formats under a single standard and fairly use this to determine the abilities of those sitting university exams -- where a single point can determine whether someone has passed or failed?

In addition, issues surrounding testing facilities and exam fees have yet to be solved. Under current recognition standards, a testing body must have at least 10 testing facilities around the nation, but there are differences between the numbers of testing facilities in cities and those in outlying regions. It is possible that students will have an advantage or be put at a disadvantage depending on where they live.

Some organizations have ratcheted up testing fees to boost the number of test centers and staff them with supervisors. Some exams cost more than 25,000 yen each to sit. Testing organizations are considering measures to alleviate the burden, but the details remain unclear. At present it appears it would be difficult to hold exams in conditions that are fair for the some 500,000 annual examinees.

In English education, it is important to train students in speaking ability. But there are also concerns that classes could become devoted to producing results in the private exams. There is a strongly held view that it is important to develop a nationally unified speaking exam in Japan, even if it takes time.

The Japan Association of National Universities plans to have students sit a standardized test using set answer sheets by the 2023 academic year, in conjunction with private exams, but it will be up to each university how the results of these tests will be used in determining passing or failing grades.

The University of Tokyo has decided not to use the results of privately operated English tests to determine whether students have passed or failed, due to fairness concerns. It says it will use an existing standardized test and a secondary exam. The University of Tokyo is surely not the only institution hesitant to use private test results.

There are less than three years remaining until the new testing system is implemented. The education ministry should lend an ear to concerns on the education scene, and consider the issue with more care.

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