Kids' academic ability can be improved more
The decline in Japanese children's academic ability has seemingly been stopped.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on Tuesday released the results of academic aptitude tests it conducted last year under the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).
The PISA tests have been conducted every three years since 2000, and the latest tests were given to 15-year-old students in 65 countries and regions who had finished their compulsory education. These tests assess how students apply their knowledge in real life.
In the first PISA tests, Japanese students ranked top in mathematical literacy, second in science and eighth in reading.
Since then, however, Japanese students had been slipping down the ladder. They ranked 15th in reading in the 2006 tests, a result that shocked Japanese educators.
In the latest tests, Japanese students ranked eighth in reading, ninth in mathematics and fifth in science, showing improvement in every field.
The improvement apparently stemmed from changes made to the so-called cram-free education policy of the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, and schools' efforts to encourage students to read more. The education ministry must have breathed a sigh of relief at the latest findings.
The next academic year will usher in the full implementation of new teaching guidelines that require more content to be taught in classrooms. We hope teachers will unswervingly try to improve students' academic ability even further.
Don't celebrate yet
However, the latest results also revealed some disturbing problems.
More than 10 percent of Japanese students were among the lowest achievers in all three academic categories. Students in this group are considered likely to have difficulty living as members of society. These figures were strikingly high among the top 10 countries and regions.
Are any students being left behind because they do not understand what is being taught? It is important that teachers give meticulous attention to these students to help them learn and overcome their difficulties.
In exam questions that required written answers, many Japanese students simply left blank spaces.
Schools and parents need to get creative in helping children learn to express themselves. Getting children into the habit of regularly reading books and newspapers and organizing their thoughts would be one way of doing this.
Teaching methods need to be verified and improved to ensure children's academic ability improves. In this respect, the National Achievement Exams in which children are tested on their ability to apply their scholastic skills--just like the PISA tests--would be quite effective.
To cut costs, the administration led by the Democratic Party of Japan only had students at schools chosen at random take these national tests from fiscal 2010. We think this policy should be dropped and the tests should be taken by all public schools, as they were in the past.
Shanghai top of the class
Asian countries and regions made eye-catching jumps in the rankings. Students from Shanghai, which participated in the tests for the first time as a region, topped all three fields.
Although the figures of Shanghai students cannot be easily compared with those of their counterparts who participated as a country, their high scores stood out. Curriculums at Shanghai schools reportedly focus on helping students improve their ability to apply their knowledge and academic skills, and they are closely linked with university entrance exams there.
Students from Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea also generally eclipsed Japanese students.
Meanwhile, head offices of some Japanese companies have begun hiring excellent Asian students. This is an age in which young Japanese now find themselves competing with rivals from foreign countries to get a job.
Students also need to polish their ability to express themselves and communicate with others. The government has a responsibility to ensure Japan's youth can acquire academic abilities that will not be put to shame by students in other countries.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Dec. 9, 2010)