Plus ça change…

Exactly a year ago, Feb 3, 2012, I published an editorial in the Japan Times. I didn’t come up with the title, but it was called “Exam Forces Students to Cram Irrelevant Facts” [note that the Japan Times seems to have changed its archiving, but for now the article continues to be available].

Today, Feb 3, 2013, the editors of the Japan Times wrote a piece entitled, “Entrance Exam Change Needed“. Sounds like similar arguments? Yup, the thrust of the argument is virtually the same as mine, i.e. university entrance examinations in Japan test “test-taking skills at the age of 18 will be of little help later in a fast-changing society”.

While I could flatter myself that the editorial writers of the Japan Times re-discovered my year-old editorial, or that “great minds think alike”, what’s really going on here is that nothing has changed in the past year regarding the main problem with entrance examinations to Japanese universities, namely the fact that they don’t test anything particularly useful, interesting or relevant to future learning or societies real and imagined needs.

When I had published that editorial a year ago, most colleagues and other readers reacted with, “You’re totally right, but nothing is ever going to change anyway.”

I’m afraid that my reaction to today’s editorial would have to be the same at this point.

There are a number of reasons for this pessimism and no single factor prevents changes to the entrance examinations.

Obviously, Japanese politics and policy-making is not exactly in a particularly dynamic area in any policy area.

More specifically to education policy, any attempts at changing content are probably doomed as reformers have clearly been burnt by the fate of the yutori reforms ten years ago. These reforms had been motivated in part by a desire to make space in teaching for just the kind of things that one might see as more useful through project learning. To create this space, the volume of multiple-choice-testable “knowledge” was reduced. It’s this reduction that has inspired years of talk about the decline of academic abilities and led to a reversal of the reduction of content.

Reforms of this kind are thus currently not to be expected from MEXT or from national politicians.

What about the universities that actually set the exams? The multiple-choice format is obviously so well-institutionalized that no one can quite imagine an alternative or that everyone would be too scared of looking like they’re “soft on knowledge”.

An oft-repeated objection to test-formats that would focus more on analytical skills and understanding is that the setting and correcting of such exams is too costly given that university personnel is centrally involved in this process.

Where else could pressure come from? With declining student numbers due to demographic developments the funnel into tertiary education has grown wider and wider. Other than at the very top (national public universities, nationally prominent private universities) entrance to university is becoming less and less competitive. Ultimately, that might make the entrance examinations even less useful and thus exert pressures on universities to drop them entirely in favour of some other mechanism.

It could also be imagined that some of the best students and their families may recognize the futility of 受験 (entrance exam study) and opt out to pursue higher education abroad. This, however, does not appear to be happening given the many laments about the inward-looking focus of university-aged Japanese students.

All this leaves me thinking that we’ll continue to read editorials of this kind for the foreseeable future, even when most academics, analysts, and perhaps even readers might agree with the analysis.

 

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