From where I sit - Time's not on our side

April 12, 2012

There were problems with the Japanese national unified college entrance examinations this year. In these tests, held over one weekend in January, final-year high school students sat multiple-choice tests in their chosen subjects: up to six on the Saturday, five on the Sunday. The fee was around £136, but those affected by last year's earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster got a discount.

Our university in Tokyo is one of the host institutions, and I was an invigilator on the Saturday. We were given our books, 206 pages of strictly timed scripts that had to be read out, with little boxes to be ticked when a script had been delivered correctly. We listened to rallying speeches from various university officials before the head of administration telephoned the speaking clock and we synchronised our watches to the second.

The morning examinations went well. We were not allowed to walk around the room as this could disturb the students, so I stood at the back, checking the earthquake evacuation map and counting the number of left-handed students (very few, as sinistrality is not generally encouraged in this country).

But in the afternoon, we made a mistake. Towards the end of the Japanese exam, arguably the most important test of the day, the script reader stood up and announced that it would finish in 10 minutes. At this, the timekeeper lunged towards him brandishing his timer. There was a whispered discussion, then, with a shaking voice, the script reader announced: "I'm sorry, I read that out one minute early." None of the students looked up: I doubt they were even listening the first time. Nevertheless, the script reader stepped down from the lectern, staggered to the back of the room, and went and reported himself.

At the end of the exam, an admin official was waiting to tell us that the incident had been reported to the exam board, the National Center for University Entrance Examinations, and he was awaiting its verdict. We took our break with the timekeeper shaking his head and the script reader whispering "Mazui...mazui", "so bad...so bad". At the start of the final test, I watched as he read the scripts, his (right) hand trembling so violently that his ticks missed the boxes altogether.

But our little slip-up was nothing compared with what had happened elsewhere. After the final exam, the media were inundated with reports of serious errors made by the exam board itself at test centres across the nation, errors ranging from not sending the correct exam papers for geography, history and civics, to distributing malfunctioning audio players for the language exams, or not sending any at all. The main problem, however, was that many of the invigilators had been unable to read their scripts within the strict time limits set.

Errors by the exam board affected 81 test centres, more than 10 per cent of the total. Of the 555,537 students who sat the tests, 3,462 will have to retake, the highest number ever. The exam board is due to schedule these imminently.

The centre that did not receive its audio players was Kesennuma, a town partially destroyed by the tsunami last March. The Japanese are an obsessively conscientious people. Rules are strictly enforced and mistakes, by official bodies at least, are rare. But last year's disasters shook the nation up badly. We are all dropping the ball these days, it seems.

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