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The Uni-Files

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

January 27, 2011

Commentary: Keio's dropping of the Center Shiken and the (non-existent) Monkasho English 'word list'

1. Keio University drops the Center Shiken criteria for entry- Good!

Since it is exam season, and also because the aura surrounding exams are impossible to escape in Japan, I bring your attention to: this recent news item
... which informs us that prestigious Keio Univ. will drop the Center Shiken from its entrance requirements from next year.

This is, in my opinion, a good thing. I can well understand the argument made by Keio officials- that the Center Shiken did not sufficiently stratify student results, at least not enough so as to make it a meaningful or reliable indicator of suitability for entrance.

This is bound to happen of course when over 400,000 people take the exact same test. And at the higher-ranking institutions, entrance or non-entrance can be based upon a miniscule 1 point difference- hardly a reliable basis for determining whether you've got the right students, and definitely less so as a reliable measurement of intelligence or commitment.

If a university decides to use only it's own 'niji shiken' (second-stage) test plus an interview as the criteria for entrance (most now apply some weighted combination of the Center Shiken plus their own 'niji') they can more effectively streamline the procedure and judge students on their individual merit. Moreover, on a test made by Keio people, the element of anonymity would be reduced, making it more relevant to the specific goals or aims of the university.

This is not to say that there is something wrong with the content of the Center Shiken- it is quite well-written and reliable. It is simply the concept, this massive machinated mammoth that defaces the candidates and can make entrance to a specific university and department a matter of a computer spilling out numerical results somewhere in Tokyo.

Just think of the washback effect it would have on high school education if more universities chose to streamline or personalize their exams and bypass the goliath that is the Center Shiken.

2. There is no Monkasho English 'word list'. Sort of.

File this one under 'you learn something new everyday', or at my age, about once every three years.

I had long assumed, and not without good reason, that Monkasho (the Japanese Ministry of Education and A Whole Pile of Other Stuff) had a set list of English words that high school students could/should be expected to 'know' (whatever that may mean) upon graduation and in preparation for entrance exams. I had assumed this until a reader asked me to locate the list- and I couldn't. Then I started asking questions and no one seemed to know for sure- until I contacted a certain Mr. Big (not his real name, in case you were wondering) from a nearby campus.

I had assumed this because senior Japanese people around me had long made mention of a set list of words that were deemed suitable on entrance exams without a gloss. In other words, if 'catapult' or 'solenoid' appeared in your exam text (as they should!), you were pretty much required to mark them with a * and add glosses at the end. Or at least edit them in some way.

So, you might well ask, how did one know if 'catapult' or 'solenoid' were 'off-the-list' words that warranted the gloss treatment? Well, every educator worthy of his/her title in Japan has a large Shogakukan dictionary strategically placed at their right hand side (the 'Progressive' version being the closest to a standard- although Kenkyuusha is also widely used) in which words that are expected to be known at different levels of JHS and HS education were duly marked. No mark meant that we could not reasonably expect examinees to know the word.

Now, you might also well ask how the dictionaries set their asterisk criteria. This is where I had previously assumed that Monkasho had set the standard. After all Monkasho does have a required list which you can see by scrolling around on this page. But, as you will soon note, this is only a short beginner's list. A further careful reading of this Monkasho document reveals the number of words to be incrementally learned at each stage but no actual list of words. Thus, the JHS/HS teacher can use one of the 'marked' dictionaries as a reliable guideline.

But no one seems to know exactly how the compilers of the dictionaries set their standards, although it is widely believed that their choices are based upon the vast (and somewhat secretive, plus hard/expensive to obtain) Tokyo Eigo Kenkyuu (English Research) Corpus. Apparently, most of these marked items make up the bulk of the handiest reference available for such teachers and prospective examinees, this being the JACET 8000 , which is available in any bookstore that caters to dealing with entrance exams (meaning 99% of all bookstores in Japan).

So now you know. Like I didn't.

Any further insights would be appreciated- and questions welcomed.

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Regarding Point #2:

I've often heard Japanese students, parents and teachers say that there is a list of 500 words defined as required for Junior High School English.

These lists are "partially recreated" in New Crown and New Horizon and are quoted as being from the Ministry of Education but nobody seems to know where the original list is published or how many words are in it.

Should I assume this Jr. High School level list is also just a myth?

Any information is appreciated.


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