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Editorial: Japan gov't can't evade responsibility over university entrance exam fiasco

The government has decided to put off the adoption of written portions of Japanese language and math exams under the new university entrance test system due to start in the 2020 academic year. With persisting concerns over how to ensure fairness when marking the written answers of some 500,000 test-takers, this step is only natural.

The move follows the government's earlier scrapping of the use of privately run English tests, meaning two pillars of the new standardized college admission exam system have now fallen. The debacle has left many students preparing for entrance exams in a state of confusion, and leaves a stigma on the history of educational administration in Japan. The government should probe how the current state of affairs came about, and clarify where the responsibility lies.

In a news conference on Dec. 17, education minister Koichi Hagiuda said the decision to call off the written tests came amid concerns that it may not be possible to prevent marking errors when commissioning the task to a private company, and because no radical solution had been found to deal with difficulties associated with test-takers rating their own performances. The minister went on to state that the introduction of written portions of the tests was not merely being delayed, but being taken back to the drawing board.

The problems associated with written testing, however, were nothing new. Doubts about the testing method had been voiced at a panel of experts set up in 2015, and after two trials, there were no prospects of solving the issues. Yet the government did not apply the brakes.

A common factor exists between the use of privately operated English exams that the government had planned to introduce and written testing. In addition to the four skills in English of reading, writing, listening and speaking, the government had espoused the idea of testing the powers of thinking, judgement and expression in the written tests, but discussion on how to do this had been left out. Another factor is that the government had neither the know-how nor the resources to carry out such tests, and had to rely on the private sector. We can only conclude that the systems were established without careful consideration.

Hagiuda stated in the news conference that the responsibility for the current state of affairs did not lie with any specific person -- appearing backward-looking on the issue of clarifying liability.

Students getting ready to enter university had already started preparing for tests. Simply calling off the introduction of writing testing is insufficient. The government should commission a third party to examine what led to the latest move and the earlier scrapping of the use of privately run English tests, and create a report that serves as a lesson.

According to a former member of the expert panel set up in 2015, there were quite a few officials at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology who were aware of the difficulties associated with introducing written testing in the English and math exams. The reason that these concerns did not stop the plans from moving forward was probably that written testing was an important pillar of university entrance exam reform, which formed the core of the education rebuilding policy pushed forward by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The administration's responsibility for promoting these reforms will be called into question.

There is just over a year before the new Common Test for University Admissions is launched. The education ministry must put its full effort into bringing confusion under control and work to clear away the concerns of university applicants.

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