The センター試験 as the Linchpin of Educational Reform

An edited and more concise version of this post appeared as an editorial in the Japan Times on Friday, February 3, 2012, entitled “Stocking up on useless facts to pass an exam“.

I have been studying 学習塾 for over six years and have visited more than 50 individually-operated throughout Japan. I have been thrilled by the dedication of charismatic educators, and dismayed by the relentless focus on standardized test results and by the lack of a diversity of offerings beyond the narrow confines of the curriculum in an era of hypereducation.

Recently, thousands of students sat for the central university entrance examination (センター試験, see National Center for University Entrance Examinations). For ambitious students, the exam is merely a requirement to check off on their way to the entrance examinations for specific fields of study that follow later. For others, the exam is a convenient way to avoid multiple examinations if they are not opting for entrance to university via the increasingly common recommendation route (推薦). The exam is one of the ultimate goals that supplementary education through primary and secondary schooling focuses on.

When I read the exam questions that were reprinted in newspapers last week, I felt great dismay and a concern for Japan’s future. Despite the tremendous resources that the state, students, and parents invest in education, the linchpin of the education system tests knowledge that I – as a university professor – am not looking for in my students and that is unlikely to serve the Japanese nation and Japanese businesses in the postindustrial era.

Yes, for a student who will go on to a doctorate in literature, it is important to know whether Erasmus wrote before or after Cervantes and Petrarch (Q9 in the World History B portion of this year’s test). But this knowledge is only relevant in rare circumstances and does not speak to any kind of skill. The very nature of the exam – short answers selected from a list of options – pushes the education system towards a pursuit of only variously useful factual knowledge that is rarely linked to any communication and analysis skills. It is one of the great strengths of juku that they seem to prepare students well for this kind of exam. This may also be at the root of the consistently high ranking of Japanese students in international comparisons of educational achievement like PISA.

To make education more relevant to the skills of the 21st century, the core of its content has to be reformed. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) should initiate an experiment with a limited essay format that requires students in social studies’ subjects, Japanese, and English to provide an analysis of a topic discussed in a short reading or through the presentation of specific data. This experiment should be announced ahead of its implementation initially without an impact on students’ results in the first two years.

During this period of experimentation, MEXT and the National Center for University Entrance Examinations might also consider various options to provide the labour to mark essays, a process that is highly labour intensive, even for a short essay. Given the number of out-of-work PhDs, perhaps there could be a system of fellowships at participating universities that required fellows to participate in the marking of the central examination. It should be noted that many universities already provide the labour to grade the university-specific entrance examinations that come after the central exam, and these often include essay formats.

After some tweaking of the essay format, this critical thinking skills portion of the exam could be gradually expanded to take its place alongside the current focus on knowledge acquisition. The English portion of the exam should be shifted from testing arcane grammatical knowledge (受験英語) to an emphasis on communication paralleling the introduction of an essay format. With a long-term plan in hand, current elementary students could be told that the central exam will have changed by the time they will sit for it and this will allow them, parents, teachers and even juku teachers to adjust their teaching methods accordingly.

Through such a gradual transition, the central exam as the linchpin of an exam-oriented Japanese educational system could be transformed from its current role as an enforcer of test-taking English, arcane knowledge, and cramming strategies into a meaningful test of relevant skills and knowledge.

5 responses to “The センター試験 as the Linchpin of Educational Reform

  1. Keita Takayama

    Overall I cannot agree more.
    One important qualification, however, is that, as you also hinted in this article, many Japanese universities assess candicates with their own extrance exams that come after the central exam and they do include the kind of essay-based and more analytical questions. Those who wish to maintain the existing cetnralized examination would argue that it is purely for the initial screening purposes and higher order thinking skills are assessed in the university-specific exams.

  2. Yes, this is important to note, Keita. I also think that the central exam might have been more meaningful as a quasi minimum requirement when it was initially set up and focused on the national universities. But when the test is either meaningless (for ambitious students who treat it as a practice for the more serious major/institution-specific exams) or superfluous (for students who are heading to anyone-can-get-in universities), why bother?

    And, the central exam does structure (in a Giddens sort of way) primary and secondary education and that is unfortunate.

  3. Re Keita’s comment – I wonder to what extent universities’ own second exams do test analytical skills. No doubt it depends on the university. However, I very recently looked at the Kyodai entrance exam, and this is almost entirely short-answer questions in subjects like history and kokugo. One also needs to bear in mind that the university-specific second exam has to be marked in about a week in all, which makes it very hard to set essay-type questions. Of course, if there is a move to university entrance in September or October, that could create more time for entrance exam marking.

    Many universities also consider the Sentaa Shiken to be largely a waste of time, I believe.

  4. I am a master student at Todai, and I am Chinese, Thank you for feeding us a good piece of viewpoint. I was stunned when I was told that Japanese University center entrance exam seldom test essay questions .
    As I took very China’s own entrance exam, essay questions are quite prevalent, in Chinese, History , Politics and Geography, even Sciences need to format your answer in essays sometimes. However, I guess Japanese wants to evade the burning question that non-traditional essay may be controversial to judge. Ever year Chinese examiners confronts innovative style compositions or even poems. So what if graders differ on grading as people prefer different things.
    Really, the essay questions and composition pose a objectivity trust issue.I just afraid that even implementation comes to fruition, students and teachers will still devise fixed ways to answer the questions, just like the case in China (八股文). the bent on play-safe will still render the suggestion of essay questions in vain.

  5. Julian,

    Thank you for the article you wrote for the Japan Times last week on the Japanese entrance exam system. Back when I was a professor at the University of Tokyo (mid 90s to mid 00s), and thus a civil servant of the Ministry of Education as well, I was assigned on numerous occasions to proctor entrance exams including the Center Exam (sentah shiken I think you said in your article).

    During these long hours watching with sympathy as large classrooms of student bowed their heads in concentration on what they had probably been preparing for during most of their lives, one of the few diversions was to read the exam questions the students were in the process of answering, and I most often was left feeling sorry for them for having to memorize such arcane and esoteric knowledge. I would wonder if there were not a better way to order students for entry into Japan’s academic system.

    My wondering usually led to the same conclusion: With so many students vying for a relatively small number of slots at the top tier universities that would — by the graces of this ordering — place them in advantageous position for throughout their upcoming careers, there is simply too much traffic arriving at too few gates for any system to be much better. No matter what is done, these numbers have to be winnowed down, or spread across a larger number of avenues into the system.

    If I am not mistaken — it has been quite a few years since I have dealt with the entrance exam question, so please excuse my qualification here — the Center Exam itself was intended to ease the process a bit, by allowing students to gauge where they stand in the ranking of their peers, and thus enable them to assess just how realistic it is for them to make into the running for a given tier of universities, and thus to determine how much effort they really need to invest. The result, I believe, ended up being just once more exam to take (and one more day I had to spend proctoring).

    I suggested at that time to a university colleague that the only real solution is to reduce the traffic or increase the number of gates, and that one way to do this would be to instigate (or promote, as it technically already exists as far as I know) a system for mid-study transfer, where a student from, say, a so-called second tier university would be enable to transfer to a first tier university based on their academic achievement their freshman and sophomore years. This would not only provide a new route into the select universities, but would conceivably improve the academic standards at all universities as some students would chose to study hard (and professors would need to meet this demand as well).

    My colleague said flat out that this would never work, because it would destroy the established hierarchy of the Japanese university system. I replied that such a shake-up was simply an added benefit 😉

    Keep up the good work on this important subject.

    Best Regards,

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