This weekend, I (and many other university teachers) were involved in the administration of the Center Examination. As this is such an important part of the Japanese education system, I thought it would be a good topic to discuss here.
As we all know, Japan is a very “exam-centric” country. People’s “level” in life is largely determined by how good they are at taking tests, and success or failure in the Center Examination has a massive impact on a young person’s future.
As I see it, there are two serious problems with the system. The first of these is the huge pressure that it puts on young people to perform well on a single occasion. It discriminates against people who are intelligent but not necessarily good at taking tests. It also discriminates against those who are late developers and those who, for some reason, do not perform at their maximum level on the day of the test.
The second issue is the question of whether the examination is “fit for purpose.” Is this really an appropriate way to assess young people’s potential? Japan already has a serious human resource problem, partly because of the falling population, and partly because of the tradition of removing women from the workforce when they have children. This makes it even more important for Japan to make the most of the human resources that it does have.
The “fit for purpose” question is one that I think many Japanese people are unaware of. Part of this comes from a misunderstanding of the meaning of “difficult.” I think there is a general feeling that if an exam is difficult, then only the best people will be able to pass it. In other words, a difficult exam is a good exam. I remember being on an English exam committee once where we were arguing about one of the questions. It was a 並び替え question where the candidates had to arrange words in the right order to make a sentence. The problem was that there were about 15-20 words in each question. It was so confusing that even I couldn’t work out the answers. “Ah,” said one of the other teachers, “but there are lots of students who are good at this, so we need to put in this kind of difficult question.”
I agree with the teacher that these types of questions are difficult, and I agree that there are students out there who can answer them. My argument, however, is that this “difficulty” has absolutely nothing to do with a person’s knowledge of English. Questions like that are actually more suited to people who are good at puzzles. I know that there are many exam candidates who are cleverer than I am (probably most of them, actually!), but I don’t believe there are any 18-year-old Japanese high school students who have a higher level of English than I do. If they can answer a question and I cannot, that question is clearly not testing English ability.
To give another example, imagine asking all students who wanted to go to medical school to write their answers while standing on their heads. That would be very difficult. It would also be very silly, because being able to answer exam questions standing on your head has nothing to do with your suitability to the medical profession. That might sound like a stupid comparison, but are multiple choice tests really the best way to choose future doctors? Exams don’t just need to be “difficult,” they need to be the right kind of difficult. If they are not, you will end up choosing the wrong people for the wrong jobs, something that I think happens a lot in Japan.
As for the English exam, I went through it on Saturday evening. My impression was that it was much better than most university entrance exams, but not as good as a professionally produced test like the TOEIC. It took me about 25 minutes to complete the test, so I think the amount was about right for high school students. Some of the questions were quite interesting, but some of them were very poor. Here is my feedback on this year’s test.
These are interesting questions for a native speaker, but I cannot really see the point in making children who can’t speak English or even pronounce English words memorise lists of word accents, particularly as most of them will forget everything the second the test is over.
I don’t like this type of question because you do not need to understand the sentences in order to get the correct answer. All you need is to know the grammar rules and look at the word forms in order to figure out the solution.
This is also just a matter of memorising phrases and meanings. Many of the possible answers are complete gibberish, which should never be the case in a test. (On a good test, all the alternative answers should be plausible and possible.) The English is also very stilted and unnatural.
See my above comments on this. I hate this type of question. It makes my brain go funny.
第3問A：choose the phrase
The first question (exuberant) is quite good because “exuberant” is a very unusual word, so candidates will have to work out the meaning from the context. The second question (cold feet) is not so good. If you have learned this expression, you can answer the question without even reading the conversation. “To get cold feet” could not have any of the alternative meanings in any context, so there is only one possible answer if you know the meaning of the phrase.
第3問B：remove inappropriate sentence
I like this question. It is a proper test of the candidates’ reading ability, and they have to read all of the text in order to answer it. You cannot answer this simply by memorising words and phrases or applying basic grammar rules.
I can see the point of these questions, but the conversations are horribly stilted and unnatural. In addition, some of the answers are nonsensical. For example, option 2 in question 1 is “it’s a disadvantage to use a foreign language in business.” Anyone with any common sense at all would know that could not possibly be the answer, so that leaves a three-in-one chance of guessing correctly even if you cannot understand the conversations at all.
I quite like this question. It was tricky for me, and it is a good test of candidates’ ability to understand the key points of a text. Unfortunately, it also contains the worst question on the whole test. Question 4 asks “What topic might follow the last paragraph?” The correct answer to that is “any of them” because of the word “might.” It should have been something like “Which topic would be most likely to follow the last paragraph.”
第4問:B: The Lakeville Marathon
This question is okay too. It tests candidates’ ability to scan a text and find the relevant information.
第5問: Salvador and Chitose
Another good question. I like the way it makes you combine information from two texts. By the way, one thing that really annoys me about the written English I see in Japan is the 20-years-out-of-date custom of putting two spaces after a period. This is a hangover from the age of the typewriter. It is not necessary with computers because they adjust the spacing according to the letter, so it just looks unnatural and strange. For some reason, however, textbook and test writers in Japan still do it.
第6問: Sound quality
Another reasonable question that tests candidates’ ability to read and understand the key points of a text.
As I said at the beginning, I do not think the Center Examination is as well put together as the TOEIC, so I think it would make much more sense for universities to use TOEIC scores instead. (I know TOEIC is supposed to be for business, but most of the language is really just general English.) If they switched to TOEFL as some have suggested, that would be even better.
Of course, the biggest problem with the English examination is that like the TOEIC, it only tests the receptive skills of listening and reading. Until tests for writing and speaking are added, I don’t think we will see any real changes in English education in Japanese schools.
I know that the Ministry of Education have recently been talking about abolishing the Center Examination and replacing it with a series of achievement tests. If you have any thoughts about the Center Examination, or if you have any other suggestions for improving the system, I would love to hear your ideas.
PS I haven’t done an audio file for this week’s entry because it would take me too long. Sorry about that.
このブログは英語学習者のためのものです。レベルの高い人もいれば、初心者もいますので、自分のレベルや学習経験を気にする必要はありません。「いつもコメントを書いている人は仲間みたいだから参加しにくい」と思う方もいるかもしれませんが、勇気を出してコメントを書いてみてください。必ず温かく迎えてもらえます。多くのコメントは英語で書かれていますが、もちろん日本語もOKですし、英語と日本語を混ぜて書いても大丈夫です。言いたいことが言えないときは、How do you say 「〜」in English? と聞けば、きっとだれかが教えてくれると思います。私のエントリー、または他のメンバーのコメントの中に分からないところがあったら、「”…”はどういう意味ですか？」と遠慮なく聞いてください。このブログで使われているフレーズや表現をたくさん吸収すると、より自然な英語に近づけることができますよ！
コメントを投稿するときは、名前とメールアドレス、メールアドレス欄下に表示される４文字の英数字（CAPCHA code）を入れてください。 最初のコメントは承認後の公開になりますが、２回目からはそのまま投稿できます。