It was the season, and another rite of passage for 543,385 would be college students was conducted on this last weekend. This was the weekend of the Heisei Year 20 Center Exam. This exam is offered all over the country at exactly the same time. There are exams in History, Geography, Civics, Math, Science, Japanese and English. There are other foreign language exams offered, but very few people take them. Depending on a student’s college entrance requirements, they choose which tests they must take.
The English test has two parts, a written test and a listening test. The written test is an eighty-minute exam and the listening is thirty minutes. Both are multiple choice. As a test, I am still baffled by many things. First are the aims of the exam. If it is supposed to be a test of language learned in junior or senior high school, the current exam doesn’t make sense. This year there were no clearly ambiguous questions as there have been in years past, but it certainly isn’t communicative. The Ministry of Education states that their aims for junior and senior high English are to get students to a communicate level in the language. This exam tests nothing of the kind. It would have no direct connection to the English programs at any college, either. It is a self-referential instrument for the purpose of discriminating between students. Since there is no transparency in the system, there is no evidence that the test is reliable, that it accurately measures language ability, or that it measures or predicts academic success.
That said, the logistics of the exam are a marvel, a tribute to planning and lots of money. Take for example the English listening test alone. According to the Japanese press, 498,800 took the test simultaneously. Test takers come to the test site at the appointed time. Tardiness means you forfeit the opportunity to take the exam and must wait until the next year. Each student gets a test booklet, a mark sheet, a personal audio player, and an IC chip memory card. At the exact time all students begin the listening test, a magical experience from a proctor’s-eye-view. They don their earphones and silently obey the recorded instructions. Pages are turned in unison, answers marked, and pauses taken. Then in a synchronous movement, all of the test takers remover their earphones, place them and their pencils on the desk close their test booklets, and face front. All is silence. In a technological miracle, of the individual audio players distributed for the test, only 288 malfunctioned. Last year 1,254 machines were faulty. Four times fewer glitches in one year.
The exams were a logistical and technological miracle, but a pedagogical nightmare.