Thursday, November 26, 2009

General thoughts on Michael Stout's article: Not Guilty as Charged

Michael Stout's article on entrance exams in Japan was very well researched and written. Entrance exams as a source of positive washback in present conditions is unthinkable. I had never thought that they would also not be a source of negative feedback, but his arguments are convincing.

I have argued before in blog posts that the Center Exam is a logistical achievement that other countries could only dream of carrying off. As a test of student ability, however, it is directionless and inadequate. It is simply a test, and the National Center for University Entrance Exams does not clearly state what it is a test of, a prediction of ability to be successful at university, achievement in high school studies? As an exam its administration lacks transparency, and though it cannot be said to fail to deliver on its promises, it makes none.

I also believe that the Center Exam is a testing ground for Sony (this year)  and Toshiba (last year), because they get to test market tens of thousands of listening and memory devices for the English listening test in market conditions that no other electronics maker can duplicate. If super high reliablity in super highly controlled conditions in a super high stakes environment with free human subjects testing machines that they have purchased is replicable anywhere else, I'd be surprised.

As older teachers leave the field of teaching, younger teachers will indeed take their places, but the Education Ministry will still be controlling the curriculum and textbooks for primary and secondary education. Innovation from other forms of education will be minimal because of the ministry's rigid regulations on what can be called education.

My prediction is that demographics and economics will drastically change admissions to and education at universities, but primary and secondary education will remain unchanged, and expectations that entrance exams can in some way influence that are bound to be dissappointed. I agree with you that scapegoating them as the reason that children don't learn English is meaningless, and will become increasingly so in the future.

First, we have to face the possibility that instead of creating a curriculum where a majority of young people can acquire a second language, the Education Ministry purposefully makes a system that will discriminate against all but the elite, those who can afford the best schools and especially jukus. The Ministry has it in its own best interests to create administrators, komuin, that will replicate their originators. This argument may be met with claims of a conspiracy theory, but imagining that the ministry wants to actually educate "英語が出来る日本人” is also belief in a conspiracy, so far a failed one for the most part.

On a more personal level, our entrance screening includes in-house exams, interviews, and Center Exam entrance. Our school will have more applicants that seats this year, and as a nursing school, it is important for us to be cautious in our acceptance of students. Our reputation will be made or broken by our students' success on the national nursing boards that the students take in their last year for their nursing license. We most definitely want students who will continue to study and be successful on those exams, as most schools have pass rates in the upper 90% rank and 100% success rates are not that uncommon. Our entrance process is more difficult recently, because the Labor Ministry is pressuring us to admit more men, but they make poor quality students, jeopardizing our nursing board success rates.


√ Abraham Lincoln said...

I enjoyed the read and the pictures on the previous posts.

I am not sure, of course, if you like old photography or that like we used to take over 50 years ago while in Japan, but there is some I did with others at my Sendai-shi, Japan blog.

CEJ said...

Another type of washback that gets neglected is the one schools and school boards have on teacher training programs. If they don't hire the teachers with a portfolio of teaching skills and a high level of English, these lose their meaning at 'teacher certification programs'. Instead, it becomes all about networking and gaming the system to get the teaching job.

What undercuts arguments about washback of the entrance exams is simply so many programs, departments and universities lower their acceptable score to get their intake quota--or waive it altogether.

This doesn't completely negate the washback effects of testing, but it does seem possible that we over-estimate it. For all but the top schools, entrance is a consumer's market.

CEJ said...

I should add--I remember editing that article by MS. I was co-editor of ETJ-J. I think I remember noting at the time that we already see some potential for 'positive feedback' with the use of 'short essay or paragraph' questions on the local exams (such as at my university). Now most arrive to take the exam prepared to write a coherent paragraph. Unfortunately, these students never take my Writing II class here!

Daniel said...

It's great you get the opportunity to shape some of the learning that happens, even if it is for the exam only. It's a shame they don't take the opportunity to follow up with some writing in school.

Writing gets a bad rap, doesn't it? Which is unfortunate, because much of the communication that happens in the real world is happening through writing. In this medium for example. Several of the English learners that I teach at the Community College who work with English everyday have said that they write much more than they speak. In terms of practical usefulness, writing shouldn't be taking a back seat.

Kirk Masden said...

"Washback" is a new term for me. Here's a definition that I found after a quick web search: ""the extent to which the introduction and use of a test influences language teachers and learners to do things they would not otherwise do that promote or inhibit language learning" (Messick, 1996, p. 241, quoted in I think the word "extent" is important. Stout's article offers some very interesting and useful perspectives on the issue of extent. However, when he formulates his conclusion "extent" seems to fly out the window and, as far as I could tell, washback becomes a "yes" or "no" proposition. As far as I can see, "washback" is not a simple "present" or "not present" sort of phenomenon. Rather, if there are tests, there will be, to some extent, "teaching to the tests." The question is how much of that occurs and how do teachers go about it. I can't answer those question about the extent, and I'm willing to consider the possibility that much less of it goes on than one might expect, but I can't swallow the idea that washback is not occurring. Stout's conclusion ("Currently the entrance exams do not have the influence to create effective washback on teaching and learning in the high schools.") is much too clear cut for me. What constituted "effective washback"? Where is the line between limited teaching to the tests or limited studying for the tests and "effective washback"? I couldn't find the answer in Stout's article.