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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

November 16, 2010

5 Reasons to take English off the Center Shiken

Let's get right into it.

I think that it would be better for English education in this country if it were not included as a core subject on the Center Shiken (hereafter 'CS'). I could possibly accept it being an elective Center Shiken subject. And I have no qualms with certain universities making it a core subject on their individual second-stage entrance exams- but it's not suited to the CS.


1. It perverts any holistic understanding, acquisition and appreciation of English, and possibly foreign languages as a whole. How?

The Center Shiken is administered to a huge number of students nationwide and demands strict standards for fairness and objectivity as well as allowing for the rapid machine calculation of results. It has to be measurable as a number, with no room for subjective or interpretive judgments. This means that the tasks and questions on the CS will ultimately be multiple choice items. This necessitates a reduction in task/question type and range, meaning that the focus will always be reduced to discrete points. The result is the atomization of the language, in which languages are treated basically as cumulative collections of discrete item knowledge. The backwash on high school pedagogy, although often overstated, is palpable (though I would say that the popular notion that this forces HS teachers to 'teach grammar' is false).

The CS has evolved over the yers to try and minimize the former narrow, discrete-point focus but it can never entirely eradicate that focus without compromising the necessary objectivity and calculation speed. This is not a criticism of the CS English makers- who do quite well within the restraints to capture a more wide-ranging number of skills and abilities- but the nature of the beast ensures that it will always fall short.

2. It is unfair, especially when it carries so much weight.

English could be considered primarily an academic subject, which then demands a calculated academic approach, but I think most would say that English is more fundmentally a skill, and a practical skill at that.

The CS shouldn't be testing skill subjects like this- even if they don't end up testing English 'skills' per se- especially those subjects which are largely non-academic (think of music as an example). Some examinees will, by sole virtue of having lived abroad, be quite competent in English but perhaps not academically suited to university. The current situation favours these students over someone who has simply had fewer social opportunities to engage the language. The student who grew up in L.A. might be less academically skilled than the student who grew up in Tottori. but the Angelino will almost certainly score higher on the CS. Although we can imagine all subjects containing some built in advantage for some students (we expect a student whose parents are biology researchers to do better on the science exam) none are determined by experiential happenstance to the degree that English is.

3. By having English employed more as a second-stage (individual university) exam subject will allow for more balanced teaching/learning and skill development.

The number of candidates at the second stage exams is fewer and more manageable from a grading/marking viewpoint. This affects test design and content. Attention can be paid to details of individual examinees by actual humans, humans who are hopefully certified and trained in the subject (absolute objectivity is less rigorously applied at this level, but a wider range of skills can be addressed, making it perhaps a more accurate measure of student English ability, 'objectively' speaking).

This approach, in turn, allows for more tasks that call for insight, analysis, use of cognition- the ability to discuss and elaborate upon content in English- a more holistic approach than multiple-choice or discrete-item approaches could ever allow for. It means that expression in writing, the ability to think in English become apparent, allowing the examiner to get a better read not only upon the student's English skills, but wider academic viability. Even spoken English interviews could be incorporated into the scheme.

I would expect the backwash to infiltrate throughout the education system to be duly positive. This would also have the effect of killing two birds with one stone- meeting the MoE's extant call for an increase in communicative skills while also addressing the need for HS students to prepare for university entrance exams.

4. It makes English more of an optional subject at the JHS/HS, allowing those who don't feel that it would benefit them (some kids who will take over Dad's farm in Iwate) much to put their emphasis elsewhere but allow those who are interested in the subject to develop more holistic, practical, and analytical skills. In short, preparing professionals who can actually use the language in discourse as opposed to the perpetual uniform national "false beginnerhood".

This would further rid the negative atmosphere associated with many English classes (by both teachers and students alike), emptying classes of students who see no value or have no interest in learning English, especially in the atomistic, mechanical way currently employed in many (most?) settings.

5. In education, streamlining is the catalyst for efficiency and higher-quality production. Freed from the drudgery and mundane, both teachers and students could focus upon more personal and/or extended\extensive avenues of English acquisition, with a focus on the productive as opposed to just the receptive, and upon the cognitive skill of reproduction rather than the lowest cognitive denominator of recognition. Local initiative would increase while the central bureaucracy's role would diminish.

Possible objections-:

1. The status of English in the Japanese education system would diminish.

That is, if status implies only core inclusion on the Center Shiken. It is problematic that many people view only the subjects that form the CS core to be academically legitimiate. In terms of what most people recognize as real academia, the ability to apply abstract knowledge into research or advanced self-expression or international communication would actually be bolstered.

2. The English study industry would suffer.

Probably. Billions of yen are made assuming to help students prepare for the CS. Obviously, guides and training materials would be helpful for English's inclusion on other exams but they would suffer. Even as I write this, some burly men in sunglasses and suits from "Eigo Corp" have entered my room brandishing very heavy dictionaries.

The CS is also a money maker for the MoE and some host institutions but, hey, are we arguing for educational or financial benefits?

3. The number of high school English teachers would decrease. People would lose jobs- including (possibly) some NJ.

The weaker end of the HS English teaching world might suffer- but is it not alreay argued that too many English teachers are ineffectual anyway? I also understand that NJs are often shunted out of the CS prep process anyway so...

Regardless, this more streamlined approach could even allow for more production-based, learning-centered classes due to decreased student numbers while retaining the same teachers.

What do you think?

*Apologies for typos in the original version- thanks to an impending migraine with zigzagging vision

« Sending Japanese teachers abroad for English training- Does it make sense? | Main | Corpses of corpora »


Hi Mike. Totally agree with your reasons for ditching the test. I really believe credit should be given when credit is due, and considering the nature of our online interactions recently, I wanted to give that credit. Well done.

Thanks for another excellent article Mike. Thought provoking and challenging.
Unfortunately, I too have a migraine at the moment. I hope we get a chance to chat at the JALT conference this coming week-end.

Hi Mike

Very much agree! Nice to see you back on academic topics ;)

Are you going to be at JALT this weekend?

Thanks for the comments! Yes, I'll be at JALT but only on Saturday (when I have a presentation BTW). I'm heading off to Singapore for some kaken-hi based research as of Sunday AM. Hope to see you guys in Nagoya.

Mark Howarth- I hope to see you in Fukuoka on the 5th.

It's interesting to see that many teachers see more problems arising from poor methodology, more than lack of fluency. I wish there were a more quantifiable way of showing this.

Mike, you'll not only see me on the 5th in Fukuoka but also in Nagoya on Saturday. Planning to make a bee-line for your presentation, so see you there!

I will have to think through the issues you have raised - after child #3 gets through the Center Shiken in January - hopefully pulled along by his English scores!

My quibble would be with your comment about the farmer's son in Iwate. I have been surprised by the number of people in occupations not necessarily considered to require a higher education (i.e. blue collar, working class) who ended up needing English. Most of the farmers use imported feed and have dealings with overseas supplers of some sort. A guy who runs his own small construction company needs English for improting doorframes and other materials. Loghouse builders all need English. And I remember the guy I taught for a few years because the small air conditioning installation company he ran got a contract to install air conditioners in Kiri Batu (sp.?) in the south Pacific. One graduate of our college, not the most academically-inclined, but very social, got a job with Itoen, the green tea and drink company. He has done very well with sales and now needs English in order to promote their drinks overseas.

I could go on with more examples, but I have found that people in the boodocks of Japan often need English in order to survive as much or more so than those in so-called higher white-coillar jobs.

Whether or not this measn the whole country should learn English and be tested on it is still a topic for debate.

Please ignore all the atrocious typos in the ltter above. I will blame it on "I should be writing a paper but am procrastinating instead."

The problem is that the kind of English tested on the CS is NOT the kind of English the air conditioner installer needs. S/he needs to be able to manage business transactions in English, and deal with things such as complaints, problems etc. To Mike's original point, the CS should move away from testing discrete grammar points which are of little use to the farmer in Iwate and move toward testing a student's ability to manage English-in-use.

Actually Mark, my argument is somewhat different. I think the CS has in fact moved away from thegrammar-based discrete item approach of yore into testing a wider range of skills using more extended texts (I published a research paper on this in the JALT Jouurnal 2 years back. But given that hundreds of thousands of examinees have to take it at the same moment and need an 'objective' score that is quickly machine scannable, there will always be a static aspect to the test. No matter how skilled the CS testmakers are at devising tests (and these days they do know their stuff) the format demands a focus upon receptive skills, passive contexts etc. So my argument is not to change the content of the CS but to exclude English from at least it's core subjects.

Also, I'm not so sure that English in Japanese high schools should be of the senmon gakko 'practical/work world' variety. I'd be happy if students could just develop their rhetorical, academic research/liaison, self-expression, and cognitive skills using English, without regard to street usage. I think that developing these skills would 'free up' their English from the CS-related constraints for whatever purpose they might have in mind.

Two thumbs up to the idea of jettisoning the Center Shiken!

As a JH/SH teacher in Japan, I believe it's high time the emphasis of English education shift toward academic skills - if only to liberate the poor kids from the constraints of a grammar/translation approach that some Japanese teachers (despite the CS moving toward testing a wider range of skills) of English still subject them to!

My students have an acute sense that these generic academic skills will serve them better than than the bottom-up, discrete-item receptive skills typical of the CS. Their response to tasks which demand fluency, meaning, and self-expression of ideas and issues is overwhelmingly positive. After six years of sitting in English classes like large mackerel in uniforms, they lap up the opportunity to put what they 'know' into use.

I endorse your proposal to take English of the CS. As you point out, this can only have a positive backwash on English JH/SH education. You allude to the fact that it would allow for greater learning differentiation.

Although many of my Japanese colleagues find the idea (especially the idea of streamed classes) unpalatable (and some, even odious), this makes a lot of sense, especially in subjects such as English, where skills are developed incrementally.

I'm thinking here of students whose academic and linguistic intelligences aren't being catered to - students whose language ambitions are not being met because of others who, because they have no interest in the subject, are just going through the motions, wasting everybody's time.

What a difference scrapping the Center Shiken would make to everyone, especially to students. I wholeheartedly agree.

Center Shiken be damned! Away with it.

Scrapping English from the CS, or at least not having it as one of the core subjects, would definitely make a statement. I'm still not sure how much it would change how English is being taught, as the CS doesn't necessarily preclude more communicative English teaching styles. The problem is really that teachers often don't know how to teach any differently and the CS makes a great foil. I wonder if adding a greater pedagogical emphasis to teacher education courses and requiring teachers to renew their licenses periodically (coming soon I hear) wouldn't have a greater and more lasting impact.

Wouldn't English also have to be removed as a university entrance subject as well for the backwash to be fully removed? Many unis don't even look at CS scores, as far as I know. Anyone know more about this?

@ Mark Hunter-
It's true that there will always be backwash but the goal would be to have good backwash. Having English only on the second stage exams, where the smaller number of students means that more productive and extended tasks- which demand more holistic skills- are (or should be) used. This would be desirable backwash.

The weight of the CS score on the total univ. entrance score varies from university to university. Some demand a minimum to take a second exam, for some the weight is huge- but since the student often doesn't know which school he/she will enter and will have many in mind, they will almost certainly be focusing on scoring well on the CS. Their 'hensachi' from that exam will largely determine their next step.

Hey Mike, sorry I didn't stick around to chat after your presentation in Nagoya, I needed to catch up with a colleague I had made plans with. The presentation was great, I think its a good start to implementing a wider program for alternative forms of evaluation (if that's what you're intending to do). You mentioned that you'll be doing a similar presentation in Fukuoka on the 5th, so if any readers are planning to attend the ETJ expo in Fukuoka on the 5th of December I highly recommend Mike's presentation.

I'd love to hang out and have a beer on the 5th if you have time. I have no plans after the expo so anytime/place is fine by me. See you there.


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