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Japanese 15-year-olds rank high in math, sciences, but reading down: PISA exam

Students summarize newspaper articles in an exercise to improve reading comprehension at a school in Tokyo's Minato Ward on Dec. 2, 2019. (Mainichi/Motohiro Negishi, image partially modified)

TOKYO -- Japanese 15-year-olds ranked high in mathematics and natural sciences in the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), but their rank declined sharply in reading comprehension, according to test results released by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Some 600,000 15-year-old schoolchildren from 79 countries and regions, including non-members of the OECD, participated in the triennial PISA. Of Japanese 15-year-old schoolchildren, around 6,100 first-year students from 183 randomly selected national, public and private high schools sat the examination. The OECD announced the outcome of the assessment on Dec. 3.

The average score of Japanese students came to 527 in mathematical literacy, sixth of all the 79 participating countries and regions. That score was 532 and Japan ranked fifth in the previous test in 2015. The figure for scientific literacy was 529 for Japanese 15-year-olds, again coming in fifth place, a decline from 538 and second place three years earlier.

Meanwhile, Japan's reading score came to 504. While the figure is above the OECD average of 487, it declined sharply from 516 in the previous assessment.

In the 2003 PISA, Japan's rank plummeted in mathematics and reading in what was called a "PISA shock." Experts attributed the decline to a decrease in the content of what Japanese schoolchildren were required to learn in the more relaxed school curriculums the country had introduced.

In the 2007 academic year, the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry launched a PISA-style nationwide achievement test that can gauge children's abilities to apply basic knowledge that they have learned. The curriculum guidelines for elementary and junior high schools revised in the 2008 and 2009 academic years placed emphasis on developing children's knowledge and abilities to think in a well-balanced manner and increased class hours.

Japanese 15-year-olds' performances in the PISA had since recovered sharply but their scores in reading turned downward again in the 2015 examination.

As for the causes of the decline in schoolchildren's reading comprehension, experts have pointed out that children today mainly read and write short sentences because of the spread of smartphones and social media. Moreover, critics say schools have failed to sufficiently develop children's problem-solving abilities to deal with questions to which there are no fixed answers.

Since 2015, PISA has introduced computer-based tests, and Japanese schoolchildren's inability to handle computers due to schools' lack of on-site information communication technology systems is said to have caused the decline.

In line with the new curriculum guidelines that are scheduled to be implemented for elementary and junior high schools from 2020 school year, the ministry will endeavor to improve cross-curricular language activities to develop children's abilities to solve problems.

The education ministry is also poised to upgrade Japanese-language classes in which students will be required to read various writings, discuss their contents and summarize them.

(Japanese original by Kenichi Mito, City News Department)

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