Is Too Much Riding on the National Achievement Test?


In April 2012, Japan’s national achievement test was held for the first time in two years. The examination was first introduced as a response to rising criticism of the “room-to-grow” educational policy, called yutori kyōiku in Japanese (yutori meaning “relaxed” or “pressure-free”). Critics of that policy argued that competition was a necessary ingredient for raising students’ academic performance, and that achievement tests bring benefits by motivating students.

Impetus for the Achievement Test

The idea for introducing a national achievement test in Japan first began to take shape around the time Nakayama Nariaki became the minister of education in 2004. Nakayama declared that a larger and denser curriculum was necessary for raising academic performance and insisted that Japan needed to introduce a national achievement test. The impetus for creating such a test gathered momentum when, in December of that same year, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development released the results of its Program for International Student Assessment, an international ranking of academic performance. The results showed that Japanese students had slipped in the ranking, which seemed to confirm Nakayama’s position.

However, the proposal to create a national achievement test in Japan raised concerns about excessive competition. In response, a new argument arose in favor of such a test—namely, that it would make it possible to evaluate the results of schools’ efforts so that they can then be improved. And the advocates of the test had their way, with the first national achievement test administered in 2007.

Items from the science section of the national achievement tests for elementary and junior high students. (Photo: Jiji Press)

Initially the national achievement test was administered to all students in the final years of elementary and junior high school (sixth and ninth graders, respectively). But in 2010, when the test was previously administered, a change was made to test only around a third of all schools as a sample to gauge the whole. This change was made as a cost-saving measure, based on the idea that a sample would be sufficient—a conclusion reached by the budget screening committee created after the Democratic Party of Japan came to power in 2009. Schools not targeted for the national achievement test could participate, however, if they and the local boards of education were so inclined. A certain herd mentality has led to a significant increase in the number of schools choosing to administer the test, with the figure reaching around 25,000 schools for the 2012 test, or 81%, as compared to 74% for the previous test.

For the 2012 achievement test, a science section was added to the existing mathematics and reading sections. There are two reasons for including science: to contribute to the national policy of fostering the personnel needed to sustain Japan’s position as a science leader and to investigate the reasons underlying the growing aversion to science among Japanese children. Plans call for the science portion of the test to be administered every three years.

The results of the 2012 test are expected to be released in the summer. Even though too much will be interpreted from a test administered in a single day, the results will at least provide some basis for evaluating the test’s significance.

A Myopic Approach?

Concerns about an overemphasis on the achievement test must be addressed. Over the course of administering the test five times since 2007 there has been a gradual divergence from the initial pledge that the tests would not spark competition. Indeed, contrary to that aim, some local governments are saying the tests are needed to spur competition among their schools, and some parents and guardians want the test results to be used as a means of gauging whether their children are attending a “good school.”

Starting in 2013, the achievement test will once again be administered at every school because the Ministry of Education has concluded that there is a need to carry out a more detailed study of the results every few years. Competition will be spurred once people have access to materials that make it possible to make comparisons. There is no guarantee, however, that the competition from fleeting measurements of academic performance will better serve children’s development. I hope that Japan will be able to avoid the folly of swinging between hope and despair on the sole basis of short-term results.

(Originally written in Japanese on June 11, 2012.)

OECD education room to grow NHK Hayakawa Nobuo MEXT achievement test Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development Program for International Student Assessment PISA Nakayama Nariaki