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High ratio of foreign students put in special education after sitting IQ tests in Japanese

Takeshi Kayo, 15, who struggled to understand Japanese and was diagnosed as having a developmental disorder, studies for high school entrance exams at a cram school in the suburban city of Fussa in Tokyo in June 2019. (Mainichi/Haruna Okuyama)

TOKYO -- Some foreign children in special education in Japan may have been mistakenly diagnosed as having intellectual or other disabilities due to low scores on their IQ tests because they couldn't understand Japanese, experts have pointed out.

Among public elementary and junior high school students in 25 Japanese cities and towns that have a large population of foreign nationals, more than twice the percentage of all students enrolled in special education classes are foreign children, a freedom of information request filed with the education ministry and other sources revealed.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology conducted a survey in February 2017 in 25 cities and towns that are part of a colloquium of municipalities where many foreign nationals reside called "Gaikokujin Shuju Toshi Kaigi." The results pertained to foreign children who were in special education classes as of May 2016. The education ministry had not publicly released the survey results or even revealed that it had conducted the survey, saying "it was an internal survey of just some municipalities."

The situation in May 2019 had also been surveyed in Ota, Gunma Prefecture; Ueda, Nagano Prefecture; Minokamo, Gifu Prefecture; the cities of Yokkaichi and Iga, Mie Prefecture; the cities of Toyohashi and Shinshiro, Aichi Prefecture; and Soja, Okayama Prefecture. The Mainichi Shimbun incorporated the latest data for these eight cities to calculate the percentage of foreign children in special education classes across the 25 towns and cities. The results showed that 5.37% (584 children out of 10,876) of foreign students were enrolled in special education classes, which was over twice the 2.54% (8,725 children out of 343,808) of students who were enrolled in special education classes out of the entire student population in those cities.

In all 25 cities and towns, the ratio of foreign children in special education classes was higher than the ratio of all students in special education classes, with foreign students comprising nearly 20% of special education classes in Soja, Iga, and Shinshiro, at 19.35%, 18.31% and 17.78%, respectively. Foreign students in the 25 cities and towns make up about 15% of those in all of Japan, and it is believed that the trend is similar in the rest of the country.

Whether a student is placed in a special education class depends on several criteria, including IQ tests. Because IQ tests are generally administered in Japanese, it is possible that the IQs of foreign students are not being assessed accurately. An official at the Soja Municipal Government said, "Enrollment in special education classes is the result of evaluating (foreign) students in the same way as Japanese students, but we recognize that the high rate of foreign students (in special education) is something that must be addressed. We'd like to analyze the results (of the survey)."

Yu Abe, the director of Yotsuya Yui Clinic in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, which administers IQ tests in not just Japanese but in Spanish and Portuguese as well, points out that IQ tests have questions similar to those such as "Who founded the Kamakura shogunate?" and "When is the Tanabata festival?" which put the test-taker at a disadvantage if they are not familiar with Japanese culture. Says Abe, "It is difficult to determine if something is due to a disability, a Japanese language proficiency issue or a combination of those things. My hope is that educators expand the possibilities of support for students. For example, if a student has subjects they are good in, such as math or English, they can stay in the standard class, and receive extra assistance in Japanese language and social studies in Japanese language support classes."

(Japanese original by Haruna Okuyama and Tomoyuki Hori, City News Department)

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