Japan panel calls for end to knowledge-centric exam

Examinees sit for the unified college entrance exams in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo.

JAPAN - The proposal by the government's Education Rebuilding Implementation Council to introduce a new type of test is aimed at rectifying the current situation in which test-takers are assessed by exams that put too much emphasis on their acquired knowledge rather than comprehensive ability.

The panel also urges each university to adopt a multifaceted evaluation method when screening examinees.

However, many high school and university officials are cautious toward introducing the new test, tentatively called an achievement test, as they are concerned about whether fairness can be ensured in screening examinees.

On Thursday, the panel headed by Waseda University President Kaoru Kamata submitted a set of proposals to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe regarding university entrance exam reform. The panel called for establishing basic and advanced level achievement tests to replace the current unified college entrance exams known as the National Center Test for University Admissions. The panel also called for discussions to utilize third-party foreign language proficiency tests.

Details about the new tests, including how they will be conducted, will be discussed at the Central Council for Education, an advisory panel for the education minister, with an eye toward introducing them in about five years.

The basic-level achievement test will assess the basic academic ability of high school students while the advanced test will be used by universities to screen applicants. The panel has called for discussions to allow high school students to take both tests several times.

"These proposals will bring about a major overhaul since the National Center Test launched more than 20 years ago," Abe said upon receiving the proposals from Kamata at the panel's meeting on Thursday. "It will change education entirely.

"We'll provide appropriate explanations to the public and I'll ask [people concerned] to discuss specific measures immediately."

Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Hakubun Shimomura, who also attended the meeting, said: "The proposals call for a shift from a screening system with an entrance exam written once, to one that will evaluate students' comprehensive ability and various aspects such as their eagerness and aptitude.

"We need to steadily implement the new system while thoroughly explaining it to the public."

The centerpiece of the panel's proposals is the introduction of the basic and advanced level achievement tests.

Behind this proposal are concerns from various circles about the existing exams. For instance, in its proposal compiled in June titled "Nurturing global human resources," the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) requested that the current knowledge-centric testing that highlights single-point differences be changed to a system under which a more comprehensive judgment can be made about students' academic abilities.

The panel's proposal also stated, "The comprehensive ability that students are supposed to acquire in high school is often overlooked because of knowledge-centric exams, as well as recommendation-based admissions or exams based on interviews and essays known as admission office (AO) exams, neither of which assess students' overall academic ability."

The results of the basic-level achievement test will be used for recom-mendation-based admission as well as AO exams and is aimed at improving students' basic academic skills.

The advanced test will be used to group examinees according to their score level. The panel called on universities to use these groupings to evaluate examinees' ability from various aspects through interviews and essays.

It also urged them to nurture students who can use their abilities in society by taking such measures as making academic assessment stricter and making criteria more difficult for approval of graduation.

"An education that emphasizes memorization of facts for tests won't work in the future," said an official of the ministry's university exam division. "These proposals will reform the university entrance exam system to broaden students' scope of experience and improve their ability to think."

Hiroaki Mimizuka, vice president of Ochanomizu University, said it is necessary to improve skills other than just academic ability before entering university.

"The existing exams are too focused on 'fairness,'" he said. "The system should be changed to evaluate various types of students by assessing their different abilities, including the ability to think."

Next week, the Central Education Council will hold full-scale discussions on details of the envisaged achievement tests and when they should be conducted. The council will also discuss the difficulty levels and whether they will be computer-tabulated tests.

School officials perplexed

High school and university officials are perplexed by the planned entrance exam system reform.

University officials are sceptical about the new system under which the advanced-level achievement test would categorize students into different groups based on score level. "I wonder if it's possible to screen examinees through interviews and essays if many examinees from the same group take our exam," an official of a national university said.

"Thirty per cent of applicants take the National Center Test and we screen them based on their scores," an official in charge of an entrance exam at a well-known private university said. "If scores are unavailable, we cannot use the new system."

"The [current] exams are objective and fair because they show differences in scores down to a single point," said the president of a high school run by the Tokyo metropolitan government.

"Taking the achievement tests several times is an enormous burden for students," said Yukitoshi Sakaguchi, chief of Yoyogi Seminar preparatory school's exam information centre. "If studying abroad and other achievements are taken into consideration in the evaluation of examinees, disparity among them will widen because of their family background."

High schools and universities are divided over what time of year the achievement tests should be held. High schools that place importance on club activities and classes want them conducted in January or later. Meanwhile, universities where new students are enrolled in April want them held in November or earlier to leave time for administrative work.

About 550,000 people take the National Center Test every year. As the new achievement tests are expected to be conducted several times a year, another major problem is massive costs and related administrative work.