Japan’s Center Exam: What does it really test?

At 9:30, as determined by clocks synchronized by satellite, 558,984 test takers all over Japan opened their test booklets and began to read their Civics exam, their first subject of the 2011 unified entrance tests sponsored by the National Center for University Entrance Examinations.

These exams are given only once each year and are a testimony to the logistical precision and social conformity that Japan is famous for. But what else, what non-academic features, are tested?

Students who are competing for places at universities around the country start to arrive at their assigned exam centers at around 8:30. There are 828 participating two and four-year colleges taking part this year. Each room and seat is numbered, and registered students each receive an identity card with their numbers on them.

Proctors read from scripts provided by the National Center for University Entrance Examinations, and manage the classrooms where the exams are given. they read instructions and cautionary marks, distribute and collect test booklets and answer sheets, maintain environmental controls like light and heat, and attend to problems that may arise.

In 2006 the National Center for University Entrance Examinations instituted a listening exam for the EFL exam. This required the organization to develop a delivery system that was fair, effective, and affordable. They decided on individual electronic, digital audio players with headphones, something like a very low tech i=Pod with the audio portion recorded on IC data cards.

During this section of the exam, students receive the test booklet, answer sheet, and their audio player. This year the students were given written instructions on operating heir players in addition to audio instructions which were prerecorded on their data cards.

But what is the test actually evaluating? Does it test a student’s knowledge of the disciplines ostensibly being tested? For example, does a History test assess a student’s knowledge of History? The Education Ministry censors all textbooks used in Japan. History texts are written and prepared by publisher and writers, and then vetted through the Ministry. The exams may be returned to an author for revision, or rejected outright. The Center Exam reflects this scrutiny, and so is a test of discrete facts students are to have learned in 12 years of Ministry schools.

The test is also an examination of financial liquidity. The exam itself costs ¥12,000 if they are taking two or fewer subjects. For those taking three or more subjects, the fee is ¥18,000. It costs money for transportation to the test site. Many parents send their children to cram schools to prepare for this test. In Japan high schools cost money, because secondary education is not mandatory, so someone, usually parents, must pay for high school education. This is an exceptional burden, because those young people rely on their caregivers for support when they could be supporting themselves.

It is a personal management test. The test must be registered and paid for in a timely fashion. Students must arrange transportation to and from the test center in of the most climatically challenging months of the year. Snowfall in January is the greatest, causing transportation delays and accidents every year.

Students must maintain their physical and mental conditions. January is the coldest month of the year, insuring that colds and flu are common. The exam is only offered once a year, so maintaining a healthy body at test time could mean the difference between the college of one’s choice and a less desirable outcome.

It’s a test of emotional well being. The pressure is on. This day is the product of 12 years of government education. In from one test, lasting 60 minutes, to ten tests totaling 11 hours over two days, students pour out the contents of their academic minds to create patterns of black dot on computer-graded answer sheets that will determine their academic future and thus the directions of their lives. For some the pressure is too great.

Finally, it is a test of their unquestioning faith in the state, the education system, the economic system, their parents, teachers, technology, social infrastructure and never, never in themselves, because in Japan personal achievement never is. It is always someone else’s doing. Success is never their doing, but failure always is. If these students measure up to someone else’s standards over the weekend, it is because of the hard work of others. If they fail, they alone shoulder the burden. Everybody else did their best.

Over those two days hundreds of thousands of young people will gather at test centers around the country in order to show what 12 years, 10488 hours ( my estimate based on UNESCO statics), of government schools has taught them. The content of the academic portion of the evaluated test, however, has little do do with what is actually being evaluated.


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