High Stakes Assessments in Early Childhood Education and Japanese Culture
By Nick Martin
Kindergarten and early childhood education are all about providing emerging students with the tools to tackle structured educational systems, starting with first grade. Emphasis is placed on introducing children to the building blocks of what they will learn next year, and identifying problem areas that may cause future concern. However, high-stakes assessments are difficult to implement so early in the process. At the ages of 3-6, children are lacking any sort of foundation that can be critically assessed, and so most assessments end up being formative or geared toward preparing for future learning, rather than judging the culmination of a student’s experiences. However, once my students graduate from kindergarten and enter primary school, they will begin studying for the purpose of testing.
Teachers in Japan, at all grade levels, must meet stringent requirements to be formally certified in the education system. This involves holding a degree in higher education, passing the National Entrance Examination, training, clinical studies, and practicums. Teachers must retest between one and ten years (depending on subject and grade level) to maintain their certifications. While teachers are expected to teach material relevant to testing, “even if an individual student fails a course, they may pass with their class regardless of grades on tests. The grades on tests have no effect on schooling until taking entrance exams to get into high school.”
In terms of professional accountability, teachers are subject to the evaluation of their peers and their superiors. Japan has a strong group culture, and contributing to the overall welfare of a group or organization is seen as paramount. An example of accountability is ‘lesson study,’ where new and seasoned teachers “take turns presenting lessons that are practiced and critiqued in a group setting.” This system reinforces accountability in schools and the promotion of effective teaching strategies. In addition, this accountability is strengthened “through high levels of parental support and pressure for education, coupled with strong ministries of education and high professionalism among teachers.” My Japanese colleague tells me that this high professionalism manifests itself in the difficulty in securing a teaching certificate and the high rate of failure National Entrance Examination. On average, only 20% of applicants succeed.
Middle school/junior high school students (grades 7-9, called 1-3 in Japan) end up taking placement tests their final year to determine what high schools they can attend. In Japan, high school is “not compulsory and therefore requires the passing of an admission exam to enter.” Some students will forgo secondary education to enter a family trade, or apply to a technical school instead. Many students will end up studying or hiring a private tutor, called juku, to prepare for these tests to ensure they can enter the best schools. As a former teacher at a Japanese junior high school, I can attest that emphasis is put on ‘rote learning’ so students are able to pass tests for entrance into high school.
In the realm of secondary education, the Japanese Ministry of Education (MEXT) administers testing on an annual basis, with different levels for each grade: There are 5 periodical tests in a year (the midterm and the finals). There are some subjects which only require 1 test per term, some 2, others give no test at all, and some would base the student’s grade on daily classroom performance alone. To graduate, there are a fixed number of necessary subjects. Passing these subjects earns you units. Getting the necessary number of units enables you to graduate. In most high schools, after studying for one year, if a certain score (marks) is obtained in tests, etc it is considered that the required units for that subject have been achieved.
Finally, here are the requirements for a school in Oregon, my home state, and a school in Japan. There are nine state and local assessments from the Oregon Department of Education, administered at three levels between kindergarten and high school, grades 3, 8, and 11. In Japan, there is nothing like PSAT or SAT, and while students are tested in their classrooms by their own teachers on what they have learned, nationwide assessment has only become popular again in the last 10 years. The tests administered by MEXT are given twice in a student’s career: when they are in the sixth grade of elementary school and when they are third-year junior high school students. While it seems that Oregon has higher stakes for its testing and assessment procedures, Japan’s willingness to innovate in the area of education shows it also aims for the same goal, a competent metric by which to judge its students.
Ultimately, in Japan high-stakes testing is a process still under reform. While the current pool of teachers is considered to be highly skilled, well-paid, and educated, their effectiveness over years and generations is still not measurable in a meaningful way. While it is true that students are assessed, emphasis is placed on later years and entrance exams. As current trends shift MEXT from these assessments to all-encompassing educational assessments, information on effective testing procedures and results will become clearer. Let’s wait for that day to arrive.
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