The education ministry’s report on this year’s national achievement test is frustrating to read because it fails to offer clear answers to key questions.
We wonder how the ministry intends to use the results of the test to improve its policy efforts.
Last year's test was canceled because of the 3/11 disaster, making this one the first to be held since then.
After four years of measuring student performance in Japanese and arithmetic/mathematics, science was added to the test this year, for the first time.
But the report doesn’t tell us what we want to know.
Why, for instance, are Japanese students becoming alienated from science subjects? Are students in disaster-hit areas lagging behind their counterparts in other areas in academic performance? What kind of learning support has proved effective?
The analyses of the test results included in the report are mostly banal observations offering few new insights, such as, “Children who like to observe things and carry out experiments are generally good at science.”
The report also contains some findings that were already made in past international tests, such as, “Many elementary school children like science, but the number of such students at junior high schools is far smaller.”
The performance of students in the three prefectures that were hardest hit by the disaster showed no noticeable fall despite the fact that many children in these areas had to study under difficult circumstances due to devastation caused by the tsunami and health risks posed by the reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
The report doesn’t attempt to analyze this interesting finding.
In addition to taking the test, students were also asked to fill in a questionnaire on their living and learning habits.
The questions could have been more effective in helping discover major factors behind key findings if they had been better designed to achieve the purpose. Let us hope that next year’s survey will be better.
The question that must be asked now is whether the past five tests have been really helpful in drawing up policy efforts to improve student performance.
The education ministry claims the program has produced policy benefits; for instance, making it clear that small classes work best.
But the fact cited by the ministry as evidence to support this claim is just that prefectures with higher student performance introduced small classes earlier. That’s not very convincing.
In fact, the Ministry of Finance, which controls the state budget, has not bought the argument, and small classes have not been adopted for students in the third grade or higher.
In order to make sure that the test is useful for assessing the effectiveness of such policy measures, the level of the questions needs to be kept the same to follow actual changes in student performance year after year. It is also important to keep questions unpublished to prevent special preparations for the test.
The program, launched in response to growing public criticism about falling academic performance among Japanese children, is based on the notion that more competition is needed to reverse the trend.
The test is not only designed as a way to measure the effectiveness of policy efforts. It is also intended as a means to discover weak points among students so as to improve teaching methods.
The questions and answers are published for the benefits of teachers.
As it is designed to serve many purposes, the test has become an unfocused, ill-defined program, not unlike a political party’s election platform.
As a test to gauge students’ achievements, it does help teachers improve their own teaching performances.
But achievement tests carried out independently by many local governments can serve this purpose.
As the government spends 3 billion yen to 4 billion yen on the program, it has a duty to put the priority on using it to better its education policy.
It is time to review and redefine the role of the national achievement test. It should be clearly designed as a survey focused on measuring annually the effectiveness of key policy measures.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 12
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