27 August 2008

Why English learning fails in Japan: Reason #6

Why English learning fails in Japan: Reason #6

Note: This is the SIXTH of a series that is supposed to make it to at least ten short installments (Ten reasons why...). However, readers' comments are welcomed and will be added as reasons in the main series, with full credit given.

Reason #6: The situation at universities (Pt. 1 - Entrance Exams)

The situation at the universities will actually have to comprise its own 'series within a series' and will result in more than one actual reason as to why English learning fails in Japan.

Basically, the reason/problem for this installment concerns the entrance exams of universities and colleges. The common explanation is that, due to negative wash back from university exams, senior high schools concentrate too much teaching and learning on getting ready for such exams. This deadens English at the upper secondary level. Also, the senior highs are locked into a similar situation because their entrance requirements adversely affect junior high English teaching and learning (especially year three, the final year of junior high or middle school in Japan).

The Japan HEO Blog agrees that entrance exams are a major issue, but some of the following analysis may not agree with the sort of 'causal explanations' you will hear at JALT conferences.

The university system in Japan is notorious for its entrance exams, and it is popularly thought that such exams exercise a negative 'wash back' effect on language teaching and learning at the senior highs. However, such explanations are flawed in their simplicity.

English of a sorts is indeed a prominent part of the national 'center exam' that most university applicants take and is also typically a major part of the second set of exams many students face. (These are the exams that universities, faculties and departments create and administer after the center exam.) I have also heard some at universities say that, unlike most of the other subjects on entrance exams, English always gives a "nice spread of scores" (meaning that there is something more like a predictable 'bell curve' in the ways scores are distributed). This can be a reassurance of some reliability if you have to make high stakes decisions on whom to accept and whom to reject

The arguments against the entrance exams usually develop into more elaborate explanatory theories with implied solutions, such as the following: Because the content of the exams tends to be literary, not practical, and includes a lot of translation problems, the wash back effect at the high schools means that they will not teach practical or communicative English. However, high schools are going to teach a lot of exam English--that is, preparation for exams--regardless of other considerations (such as whether or not students want to learn 'communicative' English). Do you think, for example, that if a university started using the TOEIC or TOEFL or Eiken/STEP for entrance qualification, high school teaching would be invigorated towards 'practical' and 'communicative' English? Would teaching specifically for exams like these actually create more practical and communicative English at the high schools?

Consider the example of the national center exam. It changed recently and now includes listening questions similar to the ones you might find on TOEIC, TOEFL and Eiken /STEP. This mostly resulted in senior high English classes increasing their listening components. It did not transform the English at the senior highs into a new realm of practical, communicative English.

Another problem with the theory of the wash back is it is wrongly one-way. As it turns out, high schools have a wash back on the universities. That is because most universities and colleges (except an elite group of the top 50 or so) are now desperate to get high school graduates to apply and enroll. Even if the top universities are not desperate in this numbers game, they are also in a new type of competition. That is, they are more eager than ever to identify and select the more capable and already-educated students from the high school populations. In other words, students ready to go quickly onto more specialized study and then graduate school.

So most non-elite universities and colleges really can not set too many difficult hurdles in way of admissions' qualifications. Moreover, university entrance exams are often authored specifically keeping in mind the sort of high school populations they have traditionally drawn on to get their quota of admissions each year. The institutional exams are really more a major way for the universities to earn income from the applicants. Not only do universities want to match their admissions quotas; their fiscal administrators tell their admissions offices they need to keep their number of total applicants well above the number they actually admit. The tests are written as part of the way to make money off all the applicants. Some have argued that such considerations actually go beyond the need to test any abilities, proficiencies or achievements of their applicants.

What would happen if, for example, most of the students applying to a particular department took a university's entrance exam and failed to get a qualifying score in English? Would the department fail to get a sufficient intake of students? No, it would simply lower the required score until the necessary number got admitted. In effect, it would waive the English requirement.

While it might seem strange for anyone to argue for a strong wash back effect from the high schools on the universities and colleges, that really is not the point. The point is, rather, if it ever existed, there is no longer any strong, negative, one-way wash back effect coming from the universities raining down on the the high schools.

If anything, the universities and high schools have disconnected and re-connected in a weaker but mutual 'wash back circuit' . That is because the university system in Japan has become for most institutions and most high school graduates a mass, near-open admissions system. If university entrance exams have negative wash back, it is mostly in terms of the nature of the students a given institution, faculty or department attracts. It is more and more a 'buyer's market' in university admissions for those high school graduates who have the money and time to attend higher education for 4 or more years. And once again we are considering a two-way wash back effect because universities manipulate the content and level of difficulty of their exams to reflect what they think are the abilities of the students they are most likely to get first as applicants and then as enrollments.

Overall, the entrance exams guarantee a level of basic literacy in Japanese and some numeracy for most of the students going onto higher education. And that is about it. The transition from a fairly selective small system to a mass system has probably had more to do with the quality of English education at the highest level than university exams. Which will help keep this discussion going into the next installment.


elric said...

I have come across one or two other commentators asserting that the university entrance exams have little or no washback effect on high schools. As a teacher at a high school, I would have to disagree. There is more effort to include a listening component now that the Centre Exam has one, but since it is not listening beyond a wider context, there is no incentive for high schools to do much more than adopt the 'thin on content' standard Japanese textbook publishers' materials. Furthermore, once beyond the Centre Test, students face individual institutions' tests, which overwhelmingly have no listening component, the grammar diet is not likely to lessen much, as it is far easier for entrance exams to evaluate form-focussed questions than anything remotely communicative or intuitive. Unless students are not going to need English for entering the institution of their choice, the need to memorize grammar inappropriate to the level of their actual ability remains. I just cannot buy the non-existence of the negative washback from universities theory - I see it in action on a daily basis in my workplace. Those at universities may be persuaded that it is not true, but the reality is there if you're in the trenches.

CEJ said...

Dear elric

Thank you for your comments. Please note the following:

1. I did not deny the negative washback completely, but said it was two-way and more complex.

2. Some universities got rid of listening components on their own exams because they are hard to create and administer, so they were happy that the Centre Exam relieved them of this.

3. One of my points was that changing university exams might not have such a simple positive effect on the negative washback effect. Getting into most universities and colleges is just not that selective anymore. Also, no one can readily answer how all exams could be systematically improved in order to change EFL at the senior highs. If one university changes, it might not have much of an effect. It would take many universities making changes, making the same changes, and making changes that would actually improve the content of EFL at the SHSs. Now imagine if 200 universities immediate started requiring a TOEIC score in lieu of their own private exams. Would this greatly improve EFL at the SHSs? I doubt it.

4. Many of the same reasons why EFL is ineffective at universities applies to the SHSs as well. For example, the SHSs are required to administer EFL for ALL students, regardless of needs, interests, aptitudes and proficiencies. Placement is non-existent, though tracking takes place in the transition from last year of JHS. Even this sort of tracking, though, is becoming less relevant because more and more students from general studies courses and even vocational ones can go on to university if they have the time and money.

CEJ said...

One more follow up. That is one of the paradoxes of EFL in Japan. Most students don't need a very high level of English to get into most universities. However, the main reason why the SHS students study English is because it is still required on the entrance exams to universities and colleges. What you largely get are English components on entrance exams that are invalid for testing the abilities of the students taking them. You would get the same thing if the TOEIC were required. Many university entrants would get a very low TOEIC score or even fail to produce a valid score.

The problem is not so much a negative washback but the lack of a valid washback in terms of evaluating individual proficiency or ability.

CEJ said...

One last additional comment on the washback effect. I have considered the idea of the senior highs having an effect on testing at the universities and colleges. So now I wonder if that could be called a 'knock on' effect? In which case, we might discuss the high school knock-on effects for universities and the universities' washback effects on high schools in order to examine the mutual relationships that hold.

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