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Editorial: Univ. hopefuls confused as Japan gov't presses ahead with private English exams

The National Association of Upper Secondary School Principals has formally requested the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology delay the introduction of private English exams as part of the new Common Test for University Admissions set to be introduced next academic year in Japan.

Under the new system, university hopefuls will take English exams administered by six private firms as part of entrance tests run by the National Center for University Entrance Examinations (NCUEE).

Up to this point, everyone who has formally approached the ministry with concerns about the new English exam system has been roundly ignored. However, a survey conducted by the principals' association showed that some 70% of high school administrations across Japan want the private tests' introduction to be delayed. The association's request thus represents the consensus opinion of the very institutions feeding students into the nation's universities. Nevertheless, the ministry shows no signs of shifting from its current course.

The Eiken Foundation of Japan, one of the six private testing organizations that qualify for the new system, got a head-start on its peers on Sept. 18 by opening reservation applications for prospective entrance exam takers. So implementation is rolling on despite the continued opinion gap between high schools and the government, and thus likely causing no small worry to legions of students hopeful of a spot at university.

There are currently seven different private tests set to be introduced, all evaluating applicants' abilities in four core language skills: speaking, listening, writing and reading. Students hoping for admission in academic 2021 will be able to take the exams between April and December next year, and their results distributed to universities.

From the very moment the new system was announced, there were concerns that students would not be evaluated fairly -- concerns that have not been allayed. One fear is that urban students would have an advantage over those living in regional Japan. To deal with one facet of this issue, the education ministry planned to provide travel subsidies for test-takers living on distant islands to make it to their exam site. However, eligibility is limited, and the regional fairness issue is far from being solved. What's more, there is as yet no visible progress toward unveiling detailed information on test schedules and venues.

These concerns also cause uncertainty on the university side. According to an education ministry study, as of Aug. 1 some 30% of Japan's universities still had not decided whether to take private English exam results into consideration for admissions decisions.

So as things stand, a high schooler with their eye on heading to university in April 2021 may have no idea when and where their English exam will be, or even if the school they want to go to will take the result into account. This information vacuum is the reality for Japan's university hopefuls just six months before the new entrance exam system is scheduled to go into operation

The people who have the most to lose from this jumble of unsolved problems are the exam takers. The ministry of education is stressing that delaying the new exams would invite chaos. But forging ahead with implementation of this new system while it is still full of holes will make guinea pigs out of Japan's entrance exam takers. We cannot countenance the launch of this system if it is to jump the gun and abandon so many young people.

To correct this state of affairs, universities should solidify and announce their position on how they will use the private test results, and private exam administrators should set and reveal the detailed test schedule. A near-term deadline needs to be set for both these tasks, and if it is missed, then the education ministry must consider alternate plans, including delaying the private English exams' introduction.

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