In turn, students with means who don’t get into a coveted top university will often wait a year to retake the test and try to land a spot at their preferred choice. During the interim, these young adults, known as ronin, will likely study at a cram school. In pre-modern Japanese history, the term ronin referred to master-less samurai who, absent a teacher, lost their social status and were barred from many traditional forms of employment. The analogy between the modern-day use of the term and its meaning in ancient times is significant: In Japan, the social stigma associated with failing the Center Test is acute, and as a result ronin—often at their parents’ expense—subject themselves to the often-grueling conditions of cram school for a year (or, sometimes, several years) to gain access to their top-choice school.
The psychological impact of falling behind in the highly structured Japanese tertiary system can be devastating. In a 2014 analysis, Japanese neuropsychiatrists found that roughly 58 percent of the ronin they surveyed had depression, and that just under 20 percent had severe depression. The scholars made clear the link between stressful schooling and poor mental health among the students cramming to retake their Center Test. According to the study, the ronin have to cope with a loss of identity; a sense of failure related to the testing; and “anxiety, irritation, and impatience” over the prospect of taking the next exam.
Testing culture is particularly stringent across East Asia, and in many ways it seems to pay off. The region has some of the highest-performing students among developed countries: Students from South Korea, Shanghai, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Hong Kong routinely perform better than their American counterparts on international academic assessments, in part because of the high expectations set for them by their countries’ testing cultures.
But the obsession over kids’ academic achievements risks jeopardizing the human element at the core of it all: the student herself. In Japan, where Center Test success can feel to those taking it like a marker of their worth in society, and like the end-all of their academic and professional careers, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) is planning an ambitious reform that seeks to transform the assessment’s role in the university-admission system, and rethink the way aptitude is measured and students are trained for their professional lives.
Japan isn’t the only country actively seeking to reform its approach to education—nor is it the only nation where standardized exams are a key sticking point in debates about what is wrong and right about a given approach. In the United States, when the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) was created in 1926 as an adaptation of the World War I Army I.Q. assessment, it was promoted as a meritocratic, well-rounded tool to measure innate intelligence. Over time, it became clear that the test was neither holistic nor meritocratic, instead creating a system whereby students who can afford SAT prep and private tutors are rewarded over those who can’t. Increasing numbers of colleges and universities have developed SAT-optional policies or begun placing more emphasis on other factors in admission decisions, and even more have begun accepting scores for the ACT—which bills itself as being more closely tied to high-school curriculum and advertises a stronger focus on science—instead. The SAT was in 2016 overhauled with the aim of fostering more critical thinking and moving past the intense anxiety it caused among students taking it to get into college. These changes, in theory, addressed criticisms that mirror those underpinning Japan’s current test-overhaul effort.