From: Peter Rivard
Date: Thu Mar 6, 2003 11:13:49 PM Japan
To: my sister
Subject: I've finally figured out the high school system
Most of my third years mostly are their high school entrance tests today and tomorrow. With the help of an academic article by one of my distant predecessors (he used his time on the program as extremely well-paid field work towards his MA, PhD, and subsequent publications), I figured out how the high school entrance systems work. I don't know if you're interested, but I thought as a former teacher, maybe you'd...
First, there are a range of high schools available to kids in this region: four or five academic schools at different levels, some with special programs in certain fields; a commercial high school; an industrial high school; an agricultural high school; a night school; etc. Kids can apply outside of the region if they can't find the course of study or extracurricular activity they want closer to home (for example, one of my boys was accepted at a school in Fukui City with one of the top baseball teams in the country). The kids take a series of tests from late November on. I'd thought that these were high school entrance tests--you keep taking them until you get in at the school you want, with a safe school held in reserve. That's not the case. There's only one test--today and tomorrow. Kids can apply at only one public school, and if they don't get in, they spend next year working in the family rice field instead of going to school. They can apply to private schools, too, though these are all at a lower level than the public schools. If you want to go to the best high school, your only back-up is a far lower-level private school. However, things usually work out. The tests they've been taking are practice tests, and they're used to direct kids toward a school where they've got an almost sure chance of passing the test. So throughout the process of the practice tests, teachers are sitting down with parents and students to tell most of them to lower their expectations, because poor Yuki-san doesn't have a good chance to get into the good school. I can't imagine a more unpleasant part of the job. Also, before the test application deadline last week, teachers meet together to "discuss" who's applying where, then they call all the other junior high schools. They figure out how many are applying to each high school and negotiate with each other--if a lot want to go to X school, then it will be harder to get in, so the teachers discourage students in the lower range of that school's test scores. It's so well orchestrated that often the number of kids applying to a school exactly matches the number of places available (in which case, ironically enough, the school is required to accept everyone who applies, regardless of test scores). The teachers lean on parents and parents and teachers lean on students to go along with what has been negotiated among the junior high schools. Kids theoretically have the last say and they can buck the pressure and apply wherever they want, but if they don't make the score, they sink. One of my favorite kids sat out a full year because she (probably her mother, actually) decided to try for the best school against the advice of her teacher and failed (but she got in the next year). It's a horrible system--it discourages reaching for a dream, and probably keeps a lot of kids out of schools they might actually have passed the test for had they tried.
More and more kids are getting around this by recommended admissions. It used be that the test was everything for everyone. Now, at some schools a third of the kids get in on the recommendations of their junior high school teachers. However, the junior high school's reputation is on the line, so they are very strict about who they recommend. I was quite surprised to find out that a couple of kids I thought highly of were denied recommendations, especially at Go-chu, where the students and teachers are quite close. It's not only a blow to the ego but a personal sting. At any rate, this process is only for the kids who'd be sure to get in by the old system, anyway.
From my perspective, the final cruelty is that the tests, at least in English, are worse than ineffective. Teaching must be done entirely to the tests, and a lot of the material on the tests is wrong; even more of it is completely pointless, testing imaginary English rules made up solely for the tests. For the compositions, a student does much better memorizing and copying the examples from the practice book than actually coming up with his own answer. Some of the junk they have students memorize is such make-work--completely inconsequential to using English, often completely irrelevant to students who are actually communicating at a junior high school level, and often completely artificial, with no relationship at all to real English (I score under 50% at a lot of these things, and I'd venture to say I'm pretty good at English). Japanese all study English for three years of jr. high school, three years of high school, and, if they go to college, another one to three years, but most emerge from all this study largely unable to understand or communicate in the language--these tests are the major obstacle to any attempt to improve on this situation.