|Japan is among the
most literate nations in the world and home to some of the world's most
difficult testing. At the end of ninth grade every Japanese student takes
a massive (as in size and importance) entrance exam to decide which if any
high school they'll attend. And there's no extended time or do-overs. Think
pass or fail.
The test is individualized for each high school, which is ranked according to the academic standards of the school. For example, if you wanted to get into the 45th best high school then you would take the test for that particular school. If you wanted to go to the 4th best high school then you would take the test for that one. Of course, the better the school the harder the test, and there are no second chances.
If you pass, you're in. If you don't, then it's off to a private high school. (Unlike in the U.S., public schools are elite and prestigious while private schools are generally reserved for low-achieving students.)
Then, just before finishing high school, Japanese students take the Center Examination to get into college. Here's where the real stress kicks in. Students spend much of their high school years taking practice tests to improve their scores. Students at private (as in ordinary) schools are not tested often because most will not attend college.
The Center Examination is a multiple choice exam similar to the SAT. The exam covers five core academic subjects, including math, language and science. Students are also tested on elective subjects, such as foreign languages. Possible social studies majors can take an exam on moral education, economics, geography or history.
As in the U.S., Japanese students prepare for the exam with guidebooks, study clubs and home tutors. There is also a wide range academic help outside schools described as "shadow education." Shadow education is generally run out of private homes and uses the same text as the classroom, with as much as 90 percent of college bound high schoolers participating. Students are also offered practical information such as get a good night's sleep and eat well before the exam.
Still though, it's all about the test. Japanese universities base their entire admission decision on the Center exam scores. High school grades, recommendations and extra curricular activities don't count. Only 33 percent of students who take the Center exam pass and go on to college. The others usually get jobs in vocational or industrial areas.