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Education

Japan's attempt at English fluency falls flat, with new tests scrapped

Tokyo cancels exams that include speaking and writing for college admissions

Roughly 60% of Japanese universities had planned to factor the private English exams into admissions decisions. (Photo by Taro Yokosawa)

TOKYO -- Japan's all-out effort to improve the population's ability to write and speak English has been lost in translation.

The government decided Friday to scrap plans to introduce English examinations from six private-sector organizations, including the widely used Eiken proficiency test, into standardized tests for university admissions.

The new system is aimed at better measuring English speaking and writing skills -- areas Japan's education system has long struggled with -- along with the usual reading and listening. But detractors said the plan would disadvantage less well-to-do students, particularly in rural areas, and left too much of the responsibility for planning on the shoulders of private testing organizations.

The decision came just five months before the tests were set to be introduced, leaving schools, students and testing organizations scrambling to rework their plans for the upcoming school year.

The government will review the proposal and look to put a new system in place for the 2024 academic year, possibly using a government-sponsored test rather than private exams.

The cancellation of the tests is yet another letdown for a country that has struggled to speak the de facto global language of business. Japan ranked a feeble 49th among 88 countries and regions in a survey by EF Education First, behind Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, India, Hong Kong, South Korea, Vietnam, Macao, China and Taiwan, but barely ahead of Indonesia.

An online survey by Rakuten Research found that 70% of Japanese respondents felt their English was poor.

Since the new tests were first announced, critics of private exams had argued that they favor students who live in urban areas, which have more testing venues, and who have the financial resources to prepare and to pay the fees for practice tests. The costs for those tests range from over $50 to more than $200. Some also questioned the wisdom of using privately administered English exams designed for different purposes for college admissions.

Education Minister Koichi Hagiuda seemed to dismiss these concerns last week when he said test-takers should compete "according to their standing" and suggested that rural students should have "the will to leave your hometown once or twice to take the test." He later apologized and retracted the remarks under a hailstorm of criticism.

The uproar fueled calls to put the exam plan on hold, but many ministry officials still hesitated, citing the turmoil a last-minute change could cause.

Sentiment shifted Thursday, when testing organizations disclosed their plans but failed to settle the urban-rural disparity question. Benesse Holdings, for example, said it would set up 161 venues nationwide but did not give a clear picture of where.

The decision will have consequences for students who spent time and money preparing for the private exams, as well as for administering organizations, which had lined up testing sites and secured the necessary equipment. The roughly 60% of public and private universities that had planned to factor the scores into admissions decisions will also need to change their methods.

The ministry hung on to the plan until the last minute as the English test reform was among the few remaining education reform plans that had not been scrapped.

Many of the other recommendations compiled by government panels under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have been shelved, with proposals for multiple standardized exams per year and a test of basic knowledge for high schoolers torpedoed by opposition from schools.

"About all we had left were the private English exams and adding essay questions to standardized tests," a senior ministry official said.

The resignations of Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Isshu Sugawara and Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai within a week of each other contributed to the decision to postpone the exams. Going ahead with the plan could have given more fodder to critics of Abe's government.

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