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(Remember how I said I was going to just write about stuff without so much unnecessary nitpicking? Yeah, my computer crashed and burned a little while after that and I still haven’t got it fixed. I have bad luck with them.)

What if your whole life depended on a test? I’m not talking about a medical test in this case (though I’m willing to bet that quite a few people have had their lives hang in the balance of one of those). Instead I’m talking about an educational test. I can’t quite fathom the amount of stress that must get put on a person when they know that their ability to to pass an examination could be a huge determining factor in the groundwork for the rest of their life.

What were you like when you were a high school student? I think I was a pretty average kid. I did pretty well in school, took some honor classes, and had some friends. I generally did my homework, played some sports, and hung around my house doing normal teenagery things. If you had told teenage me that my entire future could potentially depend on a test I’d be taking my senior year of high school with no real chance for a “re-take”, I’d probably have been a little worried.

Yes, American students do have the SAT test, which is a general aptitude test. Some might argue that the SAT is a future-determiner of a test, but I disagree.

I remember my very first full day in Japan. Jet-lagged though my Grandmother and I were, we hopped on our trusty yellow Hato Bus and took a day tour. That tour included a visit to Meji Jingu, right smack dab in the heart of Tokyo. Part of just about any religion I can think of is prayers (or some variation of that; you might call it a “wish”). Shintoism incorporates prayers/wishes as well. At shrines, visitors can purchase small wooden placards, write their desires on them, and hang them up in the shrine, hoping to get a little extra attention from the powers that be.

Our tour guide asked us what we thought was the most wished-for thing. Of course, we guessed: “Health?” “A happy relationship?” “Money?”


The #1 wish is to pass the university entrance exam.

Every year, in winter-spring, universities have tests. Part of the application process for university in Japan means you take this test (and pass) to become a student. There are some tests that can be applied to several universities, but many universities also have their own tests year after year that students must study specifically for.

Yesterday (February 25th), happened to be “shiken” day, or “test” day at the university where I work one day a week. Exam day is taken very seriously. I had to show ID to gate guards just to be let on campus in the morning. Motley crews of what were obviously high school students milled around looking nervous.

It’s easy to forget what it’s like to be a high school student when you are not one yourself, and you don’t really spend much time around one. Could you imagine being that high school student and being asked to take a test that might determine the rest of your life? One of my coworkers explained that there really are no options for “transfer” within universities, or “community college” options for students who cannot pass these tests. Admittedly, some tests are much more rigorous and difficult than others, but could you imagine what life must be like in the lead-ups to these exam days? When I was teaching, I remember learning about how some of my senior-year high school students no longer studied regularly for the last half of their final year. Instead, their curriculum shifted exclusively to studying for these tests. Thankfully, my students all passed their university tests and got into universities they were very happy about.

I suppose when this sort of educational culture is what you grow up in, it’s perhaps a little less terrifying to think about (but maybe only slightly). I’d have been  a ball of stress and angst at that age without the fear of such a test looming overhead, but I like to think I could still have done it.

It’s an interesting and different approach to higher education, and it makes me think about what sort of programs and curricula are in place in other countries.

What do you think? If your future, your education, your job, and your livelihood could all potentially ride on a pass/fail on a single test, do you think you could pass? Or would you turn into a shriveled ball of terrified humanity? Would you even try?

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