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Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Goal in Japan is NOT to Pass the Entrance Exam...

...Rather the goal is to avoid failing it. For Americans this may not seem to be an important distinction, but it is essential for understanding Japanese education. From preschool through high school the goal of every student and every student's mother is that the student will avoid failing the entrance exam. Probably the most crucial entrance exam is the one for high school. Every student in a prefecture (a political entity similar to a state or a province) will take the same entrance exam on the same day regardless of which high school they aspire to attend. But they can only apply to ONE high school and must carefully choose which school according to where they will most likely be able to avoid failing it. It is arguably the most important decision a Japanese person makes in their whole life, and they must make it at age fifteen.

It works like this: If a high school has 500 freshman slots, and 504 students apply, then the entrance exam determines which four students fail. There is no particular passing score. In fact, if the entrance exam is worth 200 points and if the 500th student scores ten points on the whole test, that student “passes.” It means it is possible to pass the entrance exam while getting 95 percent of the answers wrong. Americans are often astonished that some Japanese students commit suicide when they fail the entrance exam, but the 501st student is in true despair. They took the exam on the one day in the year all the high schools are holding the exam and they chose the wrong group to compete against.

There are three kinds of high school. I do not mean there are three tracks in a particular high school. I mean there are three separate and self-contained kinds of high school often located nowhere near each other in a particular region. The most desirable high school is the academic high school. In the Japanese language the academic high school is misleadingly referred to as the “usual” high school. When Americans want to visit a Japanese high school, they will be taken to a “usual” high school as if it were the only kind. In addition, there is the vocational high school for less able (mostly) boys and there is the commercial high school for less able (mostly) girls. Since all three types of high school will be giving the exact same entrance exam on the same day, students must evaluate at which school they will be most likely to avoid failure, that is, avoid being one of the students who fails to win a seat.

But in point of fact, my example of 504 students applying for 500 slots was unfair. Typically, many many students apply for the limited number of slots, so realistically, students will have to achieve very much higher than 5 percent to avoid failure. If the 500th student scores 83 percent, then 83 percent will be the cutoff score. Everyone scoring below 83 percent fails even though, given the difficulty of the exam, such a score is actually an incredible achievement. Each year the newspapers publish the prefectural high school entrance exam a couple days after administration. A little while later the newspapers will publish a variety of entrance exam statistics for each of the high schools in the prefecture. Each year students, parents, and teachers spend a great deal of time studying these exams and annual statistics in an effort to match each student with the high school where they are most likely to avoid failure. If they do fail, students must either study in a private school for the year while awaiting the administration of the next year's entrance exam or abandon plans to continue their education and enter the work force straightway. At which high school to sit for the entrance exam is the most momentous decision a Japanese student will make and the decision is made at age fifteen.

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