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Japan's college applicants concerned about new test portions' subjectivity

Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Koichi Hagiuda answers questions about the ministry's decision to postpone the introduction of privately run English tests in college entrance exams, during a House of Representatives Budget Committee session on Nov. 6, 2019. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- Following the massive confusion over the Japanese government's decision to drop its plan to adopt private English tests for college entrance exams starting in the 2020 academic year, high school students are worried about the new written Japanese language and math portions of university entrance exams.

Some in the government and ruling parties -- which are sensitive to public opinion -- have begun to voice concerns that the plans for the Japanese language and math tests may follow the same path as the English exams.

On Nov. 1, Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Koichi Hagiuda announced that the government would be "fundamentally re-examining" the introduction of private English tests for university entrance exams in lieu of the National Center Test for University Admissions currently administered by an independent administrative agency.

The same day, a group comprising university professors that is deliberating entrance exam reform submitted an emergency statement to the education ministry seeking a postponement of the new exams altogether. Hirokazu Ouchi, a professor of educational sociology at Chukyo University who heads the group, said, "We seek, as an emergency measure to prevent test takers from incurring damage through the (written Japanese language and math exams), the postponement and further debate on the tests.

The adoption of a written portion in the exams are a major pillar of the new university entrance test system along with the private English exams, and is meant to gauge the test takers' critical thinking skills and ability to express themselves. Grading will be commissioned to a subsidiary of the correspondence education company Benesse Corp. Because some 500,000 test takers' worth of answers must be graded in 20 days, approximately 10,000 people are said to be needed to grade the exams, which means part-timers will likely be enlisted for the task as well.

However, a 17-year-old second-year high school student who attends a private high school in Tokyo and is aiming to go to a national university told the Mainichi Shimbun, "We seriously want to get into college, but for part-timers (who are doing the grading), grading is just a 'task.' Who's going to take responsibility if something goes wrong?"

At a House of Councillors Budget Committee meeting on Nov. 8, Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) Secretary-General Tetsuro Fukuyama said, "It's impossible to grade these exams without making any mistakes in such a short amount of time. What is the significance or having 500,000 (college applicants) take this test?"

Hagiuda responded by repeating what he has been saying all along. "My understanding is that the questions will not be framed from an expert standpoint, but a more appropriate one," he said, to which Fukuyama shot back, "Self-grading, which is very important for college applicants, is going to be too difficult. These exams are only going to give test takers anxiety."

However, Hagiuda emphasized that he had no intention to change his mind, saying, "I share your awareness of the problem. Because we have one more exam to prepare, we will take the results of that test into consideration, and build a system that will be simple to grade."

Hagiuda, though, had initially been adamant about going ahead with the English test. But due to his own gaffe that students should "compete for university places in accordance with their standing," problems with the system came into sharp relief. After that, he was forced to rescind the plan due to strong pressure from the prime minister's office. A senior official at the prime minister' office began saying that a postponement would have to be considered if several hundreds of thousands of signatures were collected on a petition. Especially when thinking about families with children who were soon going to be university entrance exam takers, the official had said, it would be difficult to go through with the plan.

Tetsuo Saito, secretary-general of Komeito, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's junior coalition partner, told a press conference Nov. 8, "It has been pointed out that the system is ill-prepared. It is a fact that college applicants-to-be are expressing great anxiety. We would like for the system to be thoroughly examined."

Unlike the multiple-choice format of other portions of entrance exams, the written portions of the tests have shown to be problematic. One is the variation among different graders. According to the past two exams that have been test runs, 0.2% of an extracted part of the first exam, administered in November 2017, required correction, while 0.3% from an extracted part of the second test administered in November 2018 required correction -- meaning no improvements were made from one to the other. If calculated in terms of 500,000 test takers, the exams of 1,000 to 1,500 would have to be corrected.

The test runs also revealed gaps between marks that were given by graders and marks that test takers estimated they had gotten. The gap rate was 28.2 to 33.4% in the Japanese language test from November 2018, and 6.6 to 14.7% from the math test from the same month. Because college applicants decide on what schools to apply to depending on how they think they've scored on the common entrance exams, the tests' subjectivity run the risk of having a huge impact on applicants' decision-making.

(By Kohei Chiwaki and Yuka Narita, City News Department, and Nozomu Takeuchi, Political News Department)

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