Truly nationwide tests should be welcomed
The Education, Science and Technology Ministry's annual nationwide academic achievement exams will finally become deserving of their name next month, when they are conducted for the third time.
The Inuyama Municipal Board of Education in Aichi Prefecture, which had refused to participate in the scholastic ability tests for the past two years, has made an about-face and will take part this year.
This decision means the next nationwide tests, which are scheduled for April, are expected to be conducted by every local government across the country. The incumbent Inuyama mayor made no secret of his preference for joining the test during his successful campaign for election at the end of 2006. This has helped pave the way for the city to finally participate in the exams.
The nationwide exams test sixth-grade primary school students and third-year middle school students on their knowledge of arithmetic, mathematics and Japanese.
The tests should be conducted regularly and the results carefully dissected so education officials can determine how to improve students' academic abilities. This will be all the more important because the tests will become "nationwide exams" both in name and reality.
Useful data awaits
Children who will take the tests in April took part in the country's first nationwide physical test last year. Students' lifestyle habits are surveyed concurrently with both academic and physical tests. These surveys could provide important data on the relationship between lifestyle habits and academic and physical performance.
Students who took the first round of scholastic ability tests as sixth-graders at primary school will next year take the tests as third-year middle school students.
Results of these two tests likely will help the ministry pinpoint how students develop their scholastic abilities by examining what classes they have taken and how they study.
The ministry should compare the test results children get as sixth-grade primary school students with their results as third-year middle school students, to improve education policies and brush up teaching guidelines. Only through such efforts will the tests be able to fulfill their principle purpose.
Meanwhile, the education ministry's operational procedures for the tests tightened controls on providing data on exam results to relevant organizations.
However, if the ministry remains unwilling to disclose details of the test results, it will be difficult to reap any benefits from the exams.
It is extremely short-sighted to think that disclosing average percentages of correct answers and other data will lead to excessive competition and an obsession with rankings among schools and local governments. We think the ministry is disregarding the wishes of students' guardians and local residents, whose understanding and support are essential for making sure schools are managed smoothly.
Benefits already visible
Okinawa Prefecture, which ranked lowest in the achievement tests for two consecutive years, will start a teacher exchange program with Akita Prefecture, which retained its top position in several subjects. Kochi Prefecture, whose middle school students fared poorly in the tests, started promoting reforms to improve its education to the "national level as an initial step."
These moves would not have gotten off the ground if the results of each prefecture had not been disclosed. We believe test results should be disclosed in more detail by each municipality, although particular care should be taken not to single out schools with a small student roll.
This would require boards of education to disclose not only percentages of correct answers but also their analysis of test results and plans to improve students' scholastic abilities.
The controversy over Inuyama's participation in the tests focused on the roles boards of education should play.
Though boards of education are independent from mayors and governors to ensure education remains free from interference, this does not entitle the boards to be self-righteous. We believe the Inuyama Municipal Board of Education should have made more effort to accurately grasp what parents and other affected parties really wanted.
The government's Meeting on Education Rebuilding has been considering what form boards of education should take in the future even after it had released its third report in February. We hope the panel leaves no stone unturned in its discussions on the issue.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, March 30, 2009)