Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Historical change, historical fossilization

Last weekend I was a witness to an historical change in Japanese education. On Saturday and Sunday (January 21, 22) was the Heisei 18 大学入試センター試験 (The National Center for University Entrance Examinations). 82 national universities, 72 operated by local governments and 440 private universities use the unified tests as reference for screening candidates. About 551,300 students took part in the unified examinations. The number of students taking the test is 3.3 percent down on last year. The tests were given at about 721 venues throughout Japan.

What was historical about this year's test was that there was a listening component in the English language section for the first time. That part of the test was, in my opinion, a great logistical accomplishment. It was great to be there when it happened.

What has also become an historical fact, an unpleasant one, is that the English test contained a question that was unanswerable.

First, the listening text. The test was given during the last period on the first day of the exams. Since each test venue is slightly different, the test planners decided to produce and distribute small IC chip players for each of the test takers. Each of the players for over 500,000 people was tested before the test and shipped to the test venues with IC chips on which the test was recorded, and a set of smaller sized earphones that could be used by people with ears smaller than the standard sized equipment. These were distributed to the test takers. The instructions were printed on their test sheets and were explained by a proctor in each room, and the listening test proceeded. It was great to be in the room. Everyone pushed their start buttons at the same time, and as they listened, the room was absolutely quiet. In all of the other tests, there was a constant rustling of papers, clatter of pencils, clearing of throats, but in this test, it was perfectly silent. Until, that is, they reached the end of one of the problems and marked their answers, which they did in perfect unison before the next question started. Then upon instruction from their machine, the removed their earphones, completed their tests, and waited for instruction from their proctor, all without a single word being uttered by a human.

My thoughts were, "Only in Japan could this work." Total obedience to authority. (Through fear of course. No one in the room ever stopped to consider if what they were doing was alright. Fear of what might happen if they behaved in an unacceptable manner controlled their actions.) Everyone obeying the unspoken rules. Not a single scrap of trash left in the room after the test was complete. 500,000 test takers all over the country listening to the exact same passage on their own individualized audio units (which worked with a mere 0.08% failure rate) without the slightest hesitation or pause to consider their personal wants, needs, or opinions. What was it? Frightening? Theater or performance art on a grand scale? Maybe it was both, but it was certainly impressive.

The press focused heavily on the failure of the machines. "This situation must not recur next year," said one editorial. Where is the failure of a manufacturer turning out over 500,000 machines that work on the same day, at the exactly the same time with a 99.92% success rate? Has this ever happened before in the history of manufactured goods and electronic products? Yes, there were some people who were inconvenienced, and striving to improve conditions is great, but this was a huge success.

" In an entrance exam, fairness is of utmost importance," runs the line in the same editorial as above. If that is true, then the test makers, teachers, parents, and test takers should focus on the far more faulty work of the test creators. Here is one question from the English test, not the listening. Tell me the answer.

Choose the word with the most stress in the following sentence in large, bold type.

Janis: Oh, thanks, Tom. I'm the only one without an umbrella. Everybody else checked the weather report. Why didn't I check it?

1. didn't 2. I 3. check 4. it

I'd say it could be any word other than #4, it. What's the correct answer? I have no idea. Is this a fair question? No. Could it potentially mean the difference between a student getting in to his or her school of choice or not? Yes.

These kinds of questions happen almost every year. Other people must see these questions and wonder, too. I'd say they need to stop making this kind of test question at least.


Anonymous said...

I think the answer is obviously #2. Contrast with "everyone." "Didn't" is possible but sounds weird. "Check" is a little better, but "I" is still the *best* answer, which presumably was the question. However, can students taught in the Japanese system, mostly paying attention to reading/writing and grammar, really answer this question anyway?

Daniel said...

I agree with you about which one is the best answer, but after having asked some very proficient learners about their choises, I don't think this is a question they can answer.

Marco Polo said...

The degree of social control, and the docility of those subjected to it, is pretty frightening, frankly. The industrial system that created the need for this kind of "education" is long gone, but few seem to have noticed...How long to get them out of this mind-set, I wonder?

JH said...

I proctored the center test. We were nervous that something would go wrong given the logistic difficulty but luckily nothing did. I understand the acoustics of many classrooms are not so great, but I think that they should play the listening text on a loud stereo. There are bound to be a couple of defects with 500,000 machines. I also think that the Japanese media is absolutely ludicrous for making an issue of such a small percentage of machines malfunctioning (or it could have been test-takers not understanding directions). There were a lot less problems than I thought there would be.
Still, will adding a listening component to the center test really improve English education? Adding a listening component to me seems to mean that now students will spend more time listening to cheesy artificial dialogues of eikaiwa Bob and Jane on tape.

Daniel said...

It will take a pretty long time. Education will have to retool itself to empower people, and that isn't the paradigm presently.

Daniel said...

I hope listening isn't reduced to listening to that kind of stuff. It would be nice if teachers could adopt extensive listening syllabuses for their learners. This is a great resource for that from Rob Waring ( Great stuff, and would really be empowering for the students. (So read the last comment and guess what will probably happen.)