Sunday, May 18, 2003

This is a continuation of my 5/16 reflection on the review by Jeff Kingston on Japanese Higher Education as Myth:

I know I should be reviewing the book itself, but being the country it is and where I am, I'll have to wait for my copy do be delivered. Maybe that should be an entry in itself.

The next quote from Kingston's review is one on testing.

According to McVeigh, the greatest tragedy of the education system is the
emphasis on examinations and the consequences of this focus on students. He
is not so concerned about the content of the exams, rather it is the process
of preparing for and sitting exams that is so devastating. Learning is
trivialized, "Because it is used merely for testing, knowledge is sliced,
disconnected, disjointed, stored, packaged for rapid retrieval, and is
abstracted from immediate experience. Consequently, knowledge loses its
meaning as a body of information that points to something beyond itself, and
acquires an overly practical, banal, and dull character. _Daigaku_
[universities] rest upon pyramids of shattered knowledge, with the more
substandard schools sitting atop small pieces of knowledge ground into fine
bits by the crushing stress of examinations."

I on the other hand am interested in the content of the tests, because I believe it is a crucial piece of the puzzle that answers, not the question of [what] or [why], which I believe McVeigh will probably answer, but [how] the tests work to shatter knowledge. The content of the national, "Center Exams," are created by a mysterious, specially selected group of professors, who then sequester themselves and create an exam. The exam is published without being checked for reliability or validity. My own experience with the English portion of a "Center Test" is an example. After proctoring a Center Exam, I received a text booklet. On the English test were several questions that required students to select the syllable of written sentences that were stressed in normal speech. Those this may be possible in some cases, since the sentences were presented in the context of a dialog, others were impossible to predict. My guess was that there was a code, a kind of pattern that students were taught to follow when they answered these kinds of questions, so I asked a few of my better students about how they would answer. They gave several different answers, and reasons for them, and then asked what the "right answer" was. I told them that I did not know, as I could not predict it for myself. As it happened, I attended a presentation the summer after these exams where a highly regarded university professor was explaining English entrance exam questions to high school English teachers. He happened to use one of the very questions that I found to be troublesome as an example. I went through my misgivings about the problem in detail, and he agreed that the question was unanswerable in it's given form.

Now, does one strange question make it important? Only to the student who needed one score to enter a university and missed that mark by one point. Were there those students? There had to be. Was that as a result of that question? Who knows? My point is that the content of the exams is such that students cannot be fully prepared for exams, because the material to be tested is arbitrary and in at least one case, faulty. Tests are taken by the students, they are evaluated by others, scored by others, and students are left to feel that they are "smart" if they are lucky, somewhere in the middle, or "stupid."

The message is clear. Knowledge is in the posession of others. The average student cannot posses it. The only recourse for them is to submit to the system, roll the dice, and accept the outcomes.

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