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Japan college admission English exam reforms stunted by economic, regional disparities

Standardized university entrance exams are seen taking place during the coronavirus pandemic, with red crosses on the desks of seats left open, in the University of Tokyo in the capital's Bunkyo Ward on Jan. 16, 2021. (Mainichi/Kaho Kitayama)

TOKYO -- Wealth and regional disparities have left Japan struggling with English exam reform following the education ministry's July abandonment of plans to introduce privately run English tests and written sections in exams from 2025 under the standardized university admissions exam system.

    The decision to forgo the plans under discussion at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology came due to there being no prospect of ensuring fairness and impartiality. These were issues raised from the outset.

    Instead, the education ministry intends to encourage the system's implementation in individual entrance exams conducted by universities, as it deems them essential parts of college admissions. Proposals to give preferential treatment to universities actively incorporating the system have been put forward, but it is unclear to what extent reform will be achieved.

    Part of the aim behind the proposed uptake of private English tests assessing the four communication skills of reading, listening, speaking and writing in standardized entrance exams taken by some 500,000 applicants nationwide was to encourage the reform of high school classes, which tend to focus heavily on reading and listening.

    But some private English proficiency test fees come in over 20,000 yen (about $182), meaning students from low-income households can only afford to take the tests a limited number of times. Test-takers in certain regions may also have limited test-venue options. Now the new testing system's introduction has been pushed back amid a lack of solutions to economic and regional disparities.

    Whether the new exams will be implemented in universities' individual admissions systems is at each institution's discretion. According to an education ministry survey, among those who entered university in the 2020 academic year, only 14.5% of students at national universities were accepted through admissions systems accepting results from English private exam results. The figures were low for public universities, at just 6.0%, and 19.8% for private universities. Testing fee and venue issues remain obstacles to widespread usage of private English exams.

    The Eiken Foundation of Japan announced in February that from academic 2021 examination fees for its Grade 1 examination at public test sites will rise from 10,300 yen (about $94), including tax, to 12,600 yen (about $115). The Institute for International Business Communication (IIBC), the administrator of the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC), will from October also raise fees by 1,320-yen (about $12) for its Listening & Reading Tests, hiking the price up from 6,490 yen (about $59) including tax to 7,810 yen (about $71).

    Kotaro Matsumi heads Tokyo-based incorporated nonprofit organization Kidsdoor Fund, which offers financial support to children from poor families aspiring to pursue higher education. He told the Mainichi Shimbun that "increased fees may lead to the widening of existing economic disparities between different families."

    Kidsdoor Fund grants scholarships covering Eiken test expenses to junior and senior high school students. Scores from the Eiken private English exam are sought for admission to many universities. But the nonprofit group hasn't been able to keep up with yearly growth in scholarship applicant numbers. Some students have voiced concern, including, "I'm looking for a part-time job so I can take the Eiken, but can't find anything," and, "The test is required for college admission, but I failed by one question. My family says we can't afford another exam."

    Organizations administering the private English exams have also been acting to reduce economic and regional disparities. TOEIC Listening & Reading Tests examinees are eligible for a discount when retaking the test between a year and three years after the first exam date. The Eiken Foundation of Japan has also requested that the around 20,000 nationwide schools and other bodies serving as group test sites with exam fees lower than its about 400 foundation-designated public sites accept test-takers who aren't enrolled students. Some 400 sites have agreed, and the foundation is calling for further cooperation.

    However, a number of schools have raised difficulties in accepting other test-takers. An English teacher at a Tokyo metropolitan high school serving as an Eiken venue once a year said: "Though we want to increase testing opportunities by offering our facility as a venue several times annually, we'd need to juggle this with school events and daily tasks, and field staff for testing days. There's also the question of ensuring safety, and who is accountable when accepting external test-takers."

    (Japanese original by Kohei Chiwaki, Richi Tanaka and Akira Okubo, Tokyo City News Department)

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