Running STEP Eiken Tests as a Small School

We ran STEP Eiken tests today at our school. About 170 students took the tests, seven staff were involved in invigilating, dealing with students and parents, and it took the whole of a Sunday.

Is it worth it?

We’ve been a STEP Eiken test center for a long time now (almost 20 years?) and over that time we have made a lot of changes.

If you are a small or medium school, and you are thinking about becoming a STEP Eiken test center, then this blog post should give you some context and help you make the decision.

Financially speaking

From a financial point of view, being a STEP Eiken test center makes no sense at all. Eiken charges a lower fee to take the test at a privately run center and only pays around 100 yen per student to the venue. This doesn’t cover costs (staff, electricity, printing, etc.).

The fee to take the test at a public (Eiken-run) site is higher, which allows them to cover their costs. This pricing model is pretty unfair to the unofficial venues in my opinion and makes it unattractive to run the tests, at least from a financial point of view.

Non-financial factors

So why have we run STEP Eiken tests for almost 20 years then?

Well, there are a number of non-financial factors that make it worth it to us.

First and most important, we can provide value by offering it as a service to our students. Being able to take the test in a familiar environment, with people who can help with admin and practical issues (a number of students today forgot to bring a pencil, or didn’t know their address, or were late, and we can help) is really valuable, especially for younger children.

It gives the school an aura of importance too, providing a kind of official recognition that appeals to some parents and prospective customers.

And it can make a school seem more academic, which might be important in order to retain students as they get older and parents start eyeing switching to juku.

Things we have implemented

When we first started running STEP Eiken tests, we did them three times a year. This provided the maximum flexibility and convenience for our students, but was a huge amount of work for us.

After a while we went to twice a year, and then finally just once a year. We used to do the January session as it clashed the least with school sporting events, but some students found they didn’t get their results in time for private school applications, we we have now moved to running the test once a year in October. If students want to take the test in June or January they can go to a public test site.

At first we just had students apply to take the test when they wanted to: we didn’t teach or prepare for the test, just ran the tests on demand.

After a while we started doing special sessions to help students prepare for the speaking and writing sections: just 60-90 minutes outside of regular class time. These were very popular and, due to the very formulaic nature of the STEP Eiken writing and speaking, effective at helping students pass those sections. You can get free PDF copies of our writing practice materials here (scroll to the bottom of the page).

The most recent change has been to start doing STEP Eiken 5 with all our elementary fifth grade students. We do a couple of practice questions every week April to October, and then a practice test in class the week before the real one. In 2022 every single one of our fifth graders passed the test, which was nice for us and very motivating for them (STEP Eiken 5 is designed to be taken by JHS1 students at the end of the year).

Sixth grade students take the STEP Eiken 4 test if they passed level 5, and level 5 if they haven’t passed it yet. They practice in class in the same way, doing practice questions from April to October and a practice test.

Final thoughts

I’m not a big fan of STEP Eiken. I think it has a lot of problems, and I am not very impressed with the company that runs it. If there were a good alternative to it I could be very keen to change.

But in terms of recognition, price, convenience, and usefulness, STEP Eiken is currently hard to beat for elementary, junior high, and even senior high school students.

Students, parents, and schools are aware of the tests, want to pass them, and use them for school entrance purposes. We have found it useful and valuable to run the tests at our school, and will likely continue doing so in the future.

(we also run the JAPEC, Junior UN Eiken, TOEFL ITP, Eiken IBA, and TOEIC tests at our school)

How about you? Do you run STEP Eiken or other eiken tests at your school? Any comments or questions?

More on the TOEFL test


I attended a very comprehensive workshop on the TOEFL test yesterday, conducted by Ron Campbell and organized by MEESA (Miyagi English Education Support Association).

I came away with a much better idea of what the TOEFL iBT is, and what it isn’t. I had been under the impression that it was an adaptive test (ie the questions changed based on whether you got the previous question right or wrong) but this is not the case.

Apparently the TOEFL will be part of the civil service examinations from 2015, which is very interesting.

I also learned that the government is planning to make all public school English teachers take the TOEFL. I think this is a good idea, as it will hopefully motivate less proficient teachers to work on their language skills. I have always been surprised at how little time and effort many English teachers put into their own language study. This is a big contrast to the language teachers I know in the UK.

However, after learning about the structure of the test and doing some practice exercises, I am more convinced than ever that using the test in its current form to test all high school students is an awful idea. It is simply way too hard and focuses on academic English, an area most students who are not planning to study abroad do not need to prioritize.

I am planning to take the TOEFL myself at some point in order to understand it better, but the very high cost is a stumbling block.

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


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?

New (Academic) Year’s Resolutions

Now that we are two three months into 2010 2012 (can you tell when I started writing this post?), it seems like a good time to think about new year resolutions. I didn’t make any specific ones this year, but I would like to make some for the next academic year.

In Japan the academic year runs from April to March, and at universities at least classes finish in February, allowing teachers some much-needed downtime to do admin, write papers, and think about next year’s classes.

So what am I going to focus on next year?

One of my priorities as a teacher and learner is effectiveness, or maximising results. I want to continue making my classes as effective as possible. I define effectiveness as the amount of learning over a certain time.

For my university classes, I am working off the following assumptions:

1. my students have already studied enough grammar
2. we only have a maximum of 22 hours together
3. my students actually want to learn English
4. most of my students don’t know how to get better at English
5. there are things I can teach my students that will help them improve their English
6. tests and quizzes, while very useful for assigning letter grades, are not very helpful

I am going to be teaching the following classes next year:


I have already submitted my syllabi and know more or less what we are going to be doing, but I would be very interested to hear any advice or ideas about what I should do in each of these. I’ll be posting the contents later in the week. Please comment below.

English teachers aren’t really teachers, are they?

This is something I have been thinking about for a while now.

I was just drafting this post when I saw this link by Steve ‘the Linguist’ Kaufmann (NB: I started writing this post three months ago).

I’m not sure that we EFL teachers are actually teachers.

After all, we are in charge of helping learners become proficient in a language. I see this as a skill to be practiced rather than a set of knowledge to be taught. I have always compared language learning to sports, and described what learners should be doing in terms of practice and training. The sports analogy seems to work very well:

1. some people are naturally better at sports/languages than others
2. anyone can get better at sports /languages through practice
3. formally studying sports/languages is of limited use on its own, although it can help if done in conjunction with practice
4. being good at one sport/language will often help you with another one
5. if you want to get better at a sport/language, you should aim to do meaningful practice every day
6. training equipment will help you improve at a sport/language, but is no substitute for practice
7. drills can be helpful, but you also need to practice under realistic conditions if you want to get better at a sport/language

You can probably make similar analogies to playing a musical instrument, or producing art.

The point is, if we are coaches rather than teachers, don’t we need to re-examine our teaching situation?

Are formal classes, exams, class assignments, and grades appropriate ways to help our students master the skill of English language use (as opposed to the academic equivalent knowledge), or are they actually counter-productive?

Now, most of us are restrained by our work situations: we can’t abolish classes or grades, but perhaps there is some way we can change our classes to make them more practical. I’ll be thinking about that in the new academic year, starting in April here in Japan.

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