Entrance exam reform doomed by failure to listen to test-takers, schools

After many twists and turns in pursuit of a noble ideal, attempts to reform the university entrance exam system have floundered, unable to reconcile certain practical problems.

Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Koichi Hagiuda has officially announced that plans have been dropped for the introduction of open-ended questions and private-sector English tests on the Common Test for University Admissions. The decision was finalized based on proposals from an expert panel, which said the change would make it difficult to score the tests fairly and to resolve economic disparities among test-takers.

Open-ended questions and private-sector tests were to be two pillars of the common test that replaced the conventional National Center University Entrance Examination. However, at the end of 2019, about a year prior to the start of the common test, the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry was forced to postpone their introduction due to growing criticism from test-takers and high schools that it was too hasty.

In light of these developments, it is only natural that the ministry decided to officially drop the plan. Once again it must thoroughly reflect on its responsibility for causing a setback in entrance exam reform and creating confusion among test-takers, high schools and universities.

In 2013, the government’s Education Rebuilding Implementation Council advocated a shift away from entrance exams that overemphasize knowledge and use single-point increments, in a bid to develop human resources capable of responding to changes in society. After discussions by the Central Council for Education and other bodies, the government decided to make the 2020 academic year the first year of the reform.

Many educators would agree on the importance of assessing students’ abilities to think deeply and express themselves in open-ended questions and gauging their English reading, writing, listening and speaking skills in a balanced manner.

In order to adopt this new method for the common test, however, which nearly 500,000 test-takers will take annually, it was necessary to solve the difficult problem of how to ensure fairness. The ministry must have known that from the beginning.

By putting priority on achieving reform by the deadline, the ministry may have lost sight of who the reform was meant for. If it had heeded the voices of test-takers, high schools and universities, it could have altered course much earlier.

By changing the way entrance exams are conducted, the ministry apparently aimed to promote educational reforms at high schools and universities, but it should have proceeded with reform in an integrated manner. Entrance exam reform alone cannot necessarily solve the problems of high schools and universities all at once.

There is no denying that there are many problems in the university entrance exam system. The comprehensive entrance exams, formerly known as AO (admissions office) entrance exams, evaluate examinees through essays and interviews, but this system has been criticized for not taking academic aptitude into consideration.

The ministry plans to subsidize universities that are trying to reform their entrance exams in a bid to promote reform of exams conducted individually by each university.

In compiling its latest proposals, the expert panel asked high school students and teachers, among other related parties, for their opinions and conducted a survey among universities. It is hoped that these opinions will be reflected in future reform.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Aug. 2, 2021.