Japan to use TOEFL as university entrance hurdle?


You may have read about the Japanese government’s suggested plan to use TOEFL as a screening test for university entrance. If not, here are some online articles:

Japan Times (March 25) “Abe Wants TOEFL to be Key Exam”
Japan Times (March 25) “LDP urges TOEFL scores as college entrance, graduation requirement”

I am not an expert on the TOEFL test, and I am not privy to the details of this plan, such as what kind of scores they are planning to require, or how they expect high schools to prepare students for the TOEFL. However, I think this is a horrible idea.

I am really opposed to using tests out of context, for purposes other than the ones they were designed for. This applies especially to the TOEIC and TOEFL tests. As far as I am aware, TOEIC is a test designed to measure English proficiency within a working environment. Apart from the language, it also requires test-takers to have some idea of working environments and tasks. I find that young people with no experience of working in office or professional environments are at a real disadvantage taking the test -basically it is not designed for them.

I believe TOEFL is designed to measure how well candidates will deal with studying in an English-language institution. It is looking at whether they will be able to understand lectures, write papers, take notes, participate in discussions, etc.

Using these tests indiscriminately to measure general language proficiency or achievement is surely less than ideal.

I am opposed to using the TOEFL test to pre-screen candidates for university entrance, as suggested in the articles above, for the following reasons:

  1. The test is inappropriate to measure English achievement over the entire student population, as opposed to a select few who intend to study abroad
  2. Regular high schools are not in a position to prepare students for these tests, which means that students will have to go to the private sector if they want to go to university, which means that only relatively affluent students will be able to go to university
  3. The bar will have to be set so low on the TOEFL iBT in order for normal students to pass it as to render the whole thing meaningless
  4. A foreign company like ETS should not have this much influence on Japan’s national curriculum: giving it to them is an abdication of responsibility on the part of the Ministry of Education
  5. The test is expensive, and presumably most students will take it several times to try to maximize their score, adding 30-50,000 yen to the cost of applying to university

Basically this is the latest in a series of ‘reforms’ that start from a positive goal (improve students’ practical English abilities), then completely fail to implement steps to achieve that goal, due to lack of knowledge, political will, or sheer incompetence.

What do you think about this idea? Is it going to help Japanese students?

I think the test is not bad, but making it obligatory all of a sudden, plus, without any other changes in HS and JHS, is not going to do any good to kids.

Thanks Helen! I agree, improving education in high school and junior high should be the goal, but it’s a lot harder to do that than to decide everyone has to take an expensive test 😉

And it is not that I would go against using the test at all, but at least introducing it gradually might be a better idea. For instance, they could start with it being an option for getting a little bit of extra advantage, rather than having all the students take it.

I am also not sure that it is a good idea for two reasons.

The first is that the curriculum, as I understand it in the junior high and high schools, does not emphasize English. If they wanted to do this,another way to do this would be to test the kids on the way out.

The second is that the TOEFL and TOEIC are products produced and sold by a company, ETS.

I look at this as a band aid to a problem with deeper roots. I can see Japan’s university enrollment going down after this is [possibly] implemented.

(And I see now that you also listed those reasons. I’ll stop here and read the article.)

Thanks Tom! I like your blog very much. I’ll take some time to check it out over the next couple of days 🙂

I agree with all your reasons. Tests like the TOEFL and TOEIC perhaps have their place, but from the scant information I have about this proposal I don’t think this is a good idea at all. Implemented appropriately, it may help those students who actually need academic English, but the vast majority of students don’t.

Hi Paul
Thanks for the comment! I have just seen too many of these proposals in my time here.

Being that high school English lessons are supposed to be conducted in all English beginning this coming school year, it may be an attempt to light a little fire under the feet of the teachers. Even if that’s the case, however, it would seem to be more appropriate to introduce the test in three years, when the soon-to-be high school first year students are taking the exams. I would prefer to see a more practical English test implemented, but I think educational bureaucrats prefer the an emphasis on the academic as it gives the impression of being more rigorous.

Hey Ryan
Are you still involved with any high schools? That ‘teach in English’ thing has been a part of the course of study since the last one in 2003 -do you think they will actually go through with it this time? I can’t see it myself.

Excellent blog post Ben, and enjoying the response you are stoking.

I can’t see any benefit whatsoever that adopting TOEFL will have for the students. As you say, the tests are not suitable to the learners, with many inaccessible topics related to work, adult themes, worldliness that are simply not part & parcel of the average teen`s language learning/life experience.

I sincerely believe Japanese universities and businesses need to

I also think it is outrageous that this country`s educational goalposts appear to be shifting to fit a “one-size fits all” test. In the process, no care whatsoever is being paid to the learners – who must now learn how to be successful in this (expensive) test…nor any support provided to the schools/teachers in terms of curriculum or professional development. Very much as Ryan points out, now that English must be taught “in English” at high schools – grandiose ‘plan’ with absolutely no substance whatsoever. ETS sell huge numbers of tests (I am guessing now that candidates will be trying time & again to get a high score?) while contributing absolutely nothing to the development of English language learning, English language teaching, English language proficiency in Japan. I can hear cash registers ringing at jukus & convenience stores` POS – not at language schools like yours and mine, Ben; the very idea of teaching to pass an inappropriate test is an anathema to any EFL teacher with a conscience.

None of us will see the jigs they are dancing at ETS; money for old rope. And old rope in this country seems to be a very attractive proposition for lazy administrators, unqualified educational mandarins, and headline grabbing politicians. A three-ring circus for sure, with predictably chronic results – as you predict, an ever lowering of the bar until universities can satiate their demographically starved coffers.

We teachers can get on our high horses as much as we like; days gone by voices such as yours would be lost. Please keep blogging on this?!

= I am declaring an interest here. I own a Cambridge English Langauge Assessment Centre (JP004). I am a Cambridge examiner trainer. I am deeply concerned with the direction English language teaching & “assessment”/placement is heading in Japan.

Thanks Jim. I can see some benefit for us, as parents and students may end up looking for help outside the school system, and a decent grounding in English will help with the TOEFL (not sure it’s a test you can cram for, although I’m sure a lot of people will try).

Still, a shame as the goal is a good one -MEXT just seems to have no idea how to implement it!

[…] was very negative about the Japanese government’s proposal to use TOEFL to screen university appli…. It’s easy to criticize, to offer up reasons why things won’t work. It makes you feel […]

5 Apr 2013, 9:49am
by Richard Attwood


I will just add a little fuel to this fire. The TOEFL Junior test from ETS is now being promoted in Japan and their main business partner for this is Kumon.

Hi Rich
I went to a presentation on that last year. It seemed to be aimed at very proficient JHS and up… not sure how much of a crossover with Kumon that will have. I haven’t been very impressed with Kumon’s English course from what I have seen of it…

Overall, I think TOEFL is a better test than TOEIC, and better focused for university entrance (albiet for ESL students, not EFL).

We used to use TOEFL to measure student proficiency, administered once a year. We eventually found that the amount of discrimination at the lower levels was not very good, with a wide variability (margin for error).

We then switched to TOEIC. Popularity won over. Everybody else was doing it. The tests developed for Cambridge are much better.

Hi Kevin
Thanks for the comment. I think that lack of discrimination at lower levels (as well as the cost) is what really makes this plan unrealistic… I mean, they’re going to have all the students in Japan take this?

[…] You can see my previous post on using TOEFL for university entrance selection here. […]


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