Photo/IllutrationOpponents of the overhauled university entrance system protest in front of the education ministry on Sept. 13, demanding that it be scrapped. (The Asahi Shimbun)

Two-thirds of universities and 90 percent of high schools view the planned introduction of private-sector English language tests for a new standardized college admission exam program as “problematic,” a survey showed.

Educators voiced fears that students from low-income families and regions where such English tests are not available will be put at a disadvantage under the new setup. Having to take such tests places a financial burden on students.

The National Association of Upper Secondary School Principals took the unusual step of asking the education ministry on Sept. 10 to “postpone” the introduction of the new system.

The nationwide survey was jointly conducted between June and July by The Asahi Shimbun and Kawaijuku Educational Institution, a leading operator of cram schools.

It involved 761 universities and 4,686 national, public-supported and private high schools. Responses were received from 683 universities and 959 high schools.

The survey found that 65 percent of university officials in charge of entrance exams regard the planned introduction of private-sector English language ability tests as “problematic” when they were asked to choose from either “problematic” or “not problematic” in assessing the new system.

The figure was up 19 percentage points from a similar survey conducted in 2018.

Thirty-one percent of respondents chose “not problematic.”

The ratio of guidance counselors for students or other officials at high schools who replied “problematic” came to 89 percent, while the ratio that answered “not problematic” was 10 percent.

The percentage of high school counselors and officials expressing concern about the revamped test system was higher at high schools where the ratio of students taking entrance exams to national or public-supported universities is large than at high schools where the ratio of such students is small.

Most national and public-supported universities are set to introduce the private-sector English language ability tests.

They will be introduced in the 2020 academic year beginning that April, when the revised common first-stage university entrance examination starts.

There are seven such private-sector tests, including TOEFL, the Cambridge English exams and Japan’s Eiken test.

The exams are intended to assess four basic skills: reading, listening, speaking and writing.

Despite the ministry’s teaching guidelines on emphasizing these four skills, the current test has been criticized as being weighted heavily toward reading and listening comprehension.

The ministry contends that students will be able to acquire practical English language ability if the four basic skills are mastered.

In principle, universities will determine the success of applicants on the basis of their performance on up to two tests they take between April and December 2020 as third-year students.

It is up to the discretion of each university to decide whether or not to act on the test results.

Students will be required to pay an additional sum to take the private tests, which are separate from the new common first-stage entrance exam.

Critics of the new system cited “household income disparities,” “regional disparities” and “fairness in comparing the results of those separate tests” as issues of concern.

Numerous experts have voiced such concerns since the introduction of the new entrance exam system was announced.

The survey showed that university officials were most concerned that family income would likely affect the performance of each student, with a combined 83 percent replying “strongly believe so” and “believe so.”

In the survey, respondents were asked to give one of the four answers on 10 potential problems: “strongly believe so,” “believe so,” “do not believe so” and “do not believe so at all.”

Other potential problems cited by university officials who chose the first two answers were: “It is difficult to know how universities will use the results of the tests by private-sector testing companies as the approach varies from one university to the next,” at 77 percent; “securing fairness in assessing students’ performance who took different tests,” at 76 percent; “not all applicants are allowed to take entrance exams to universities they want to enter,” at 76 percent; and “regional disparities will widen,” at 76 percent.

As for potential problems envisaged by high school counselors and officials who chose “strongly believe so” and “believe so” were the family income issue, at 93 percent; how universities will use the test results, at 92 percent; fairness in assessing students’ performance, 89 percent; and regional disparities, 85 percent.

A little more than six months remain until the private-sector tests come into play, but many details remain murky at this point, such as the number of venues where tests will be held and the schedule for the tests.

In addition, some universities have yet to announce how they will use the test results in determining the performance of applicants.

Koichi Hagiuda, who assumed the post of education minister on Sept. 11, said the ministry will adhere to the original schedule despite the request by high school principals.

The ministry plans to extend financial support to the travel expenses of needy students and provide more briefing sessions on the program to gain wider public understanding of the overhauled entrance examination system.