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The Uni-Files

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

January 12, 2011

Student opinions on entrance exams- a good idea but...

I noticed this item in the Daily Yomiuri on Dec. 30th (2010) about how some high schools are now including questions which allow examinees to express their opinions on entrance exams. I encourage you to read the article. Closely.

At first it is hard to argue with the intent. I have long been an advocate of avoiding discrete-item, passive, receptive test taking as being the sole determiner of entrance scores, since they capture only a small percentage of English skill and ability and, as we all know, tend to have a negative pedagogical washback. And I have long argued that most second-stage university entrance exams in Japan have moved more and more in this direction over the past decade. Essay writing, open ended writing tasks and other productive, active testing modes are now so routine that most high school and juku teachers will address these skills- obviously a good thing.

So, the fact that high schools are starting to take note and apply the same principles to their own entrance exams would seem to be cause for applause. But.. take a closer look at the article.

The main idea of this new approach is that 'independent thinking' should be encouraged and rewarded. Fine. But then in the article's test-item examples we see that 'correct answers' include very specific concepts and content (in the first example, students had to note that mankind had appeared on earth very recently, and in the second the term 'mutual assistance' had to be included in the answer.

So, hold on a second. We are asking for independent thinking, self-expression, and opinions and yet we have these very set, particular correct answers. Isn't this a contradiction?

An official from the Osaka Board of Education quoted in the article says, "These kind of questions test students' ability to choose important information, develop their own opinions and express their views intelligibly", except... the answers must include mention of specific items.

Here's the problem- it is entirely plausible that you could have a student address points raised in the text, write in an orderly and intelligible manner, and express an opinion with merit, and justify it, and still not receive due credit if they haven't made mention of the 'key' concepts.

In other words if the Osaka official really wants students to choose important information, develop their own opinions, and express their views intelligibly, if this is the criteria, then you have to drop entirely the notion of a correct answer. Instead you have to evaluate essay writing skills- Did the student actually address and understand the text? Was the response stylistically sound: rhetoric, organization, register etc.? Did the student present a meaningful opinion and were they able to justify it?

I think I know why the testmarkers still want to maintain the notion of a set answer. For one thing it makes the test papers easier to grade. Look for the keyword and if it appears, credit is given. No keywords = no credit. It also removes the dreaded notion of subjectivity in grading and the related possible charge of bias or imbalance in scoring. But arbitrarily assigning a 'correct' response to what is ostensibly an opinion-based writing task is worse than any aspect of subjectivity grading, as it renders the test item invalid- you are not grading what the question/task is actually asking.

And what's so bad about subjective grading anyway? Teachers do it on every classroom essay, report, or other assignments that don't feature fill-in-the-blanks or multiple choice (kigou) answers. We assume they can do so because they are trained professionals who, like judges, are expected to be specialists in evaluating the skills and abilities of their students. If they have no confidence in doing so on entrance exams, why are they teachers?

There's also a way to create more balance in scoring: Employ two scorers for any open-ended question. Have a skill criteria (a general one, not too detailed) established between the two of you and then mark separately. If the task is worth 20 points and you give one examinee a 17 and the second scorer gives a 13, you then make the final total for this question a 15. That seems fair.

Finally, I have to take issue with the seemingly automatic, but unnecessary, association teachers (both Japanese and native English speakers) make between productive writing/speaking tasks and 'expressing one's opinion'. First, it can be difficult to grade 'opinions' with all its value-laden baggage, but self-expression includes so much more than just giving opinions. Summarizing, narrating, predicting, creative writing, and commentary are all valid and important modes of self-expression that can also be tested. The easy fallback on 'giving your opinion' tasks fosters the unfortunate binary paradigm that if a text is not a cold hard fact it must be an opinion or, if you are not just regurgitating facts you must/should be indulging in expressing your opinion.

Some people just don't have strong opinions on certain topics, especially when an authority figure has chosen the topic. Cultural and even personal factors can come into play here too. Some cultures and some individuals are more indirect, opaque, restrained in their approach to offering opinions. They may not be comfortable with artificially forming a clear opinion in a certain number of words on a topic not of their choice, and yet they may understand the content perfectly well and likewise be adept at self-expression. Not everybody wants to be a Glenn Beck or a Michael Moore, nor should they. Students shouldn't be punished for this.

There is much more to productive, active, intelligence-engaging self-expression tasks than 'giving my opinion' (which seems to me to be a very post-sixties American value), just as there ways to grade such tasks without resorting to set answers.

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