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.