The EIKEN Test in Practical English Proficiency is an English proficiency assessment offered by the Eiken Foundation of Japan. It is the the Eiken Foundation’s former name – the Society for Testing English Proficiency – that explains why the exam is more commonly known as the STEP Eiken but, regardless of their names, both the exam and the organization are supported and endorsed by the Japanese government. Because of this support – and its unique status as an exam of Japanese origin – more than 2 million people take the EIKEN tests each year.
As you would expect, the majority of these test-takers are based in Japan and the exam does offer several tangible benefits for Japanese students interested in demonstrating their English proficiency. As the most widely taken English exam in Japan, for example, it is used by many English language programs at the junior and high school level to certify (and in some cases waive) a student’s English proficiency requirements. The exam is not just used in Japan, however. A small but growing number of schools in 45 countries – including, notable, the United States, Canada, and Australia – use the STEP Eiken to certify the English proficiency of international students for a variety of purposes. Moreover, because the exam is tied not just to the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology’s MEXT benchmarks but also to the Common European Framework of Reference, students can use the exam for self-assessment and third-party organizations can easily use the exam to assess the proficiency level of non-native English users.
Like many other ESL assessments, The STEP Eiken is not one test but several. In fact, the overall framework is made up of seven levels – “Grades” – whose decreasing number indicate increasing level of difficulty. Thus Grade 5 – on par with the CEFR's A1 level – is the easiest while Grade 1 – equivalent to a C1 designation according to the CEFR and a 100 on the TOEFL iBT – is the most rigorous. Grades Pre-2 and Pre-1 round out the set of seven. Each EIKEN grade is a separate test with a unique set of level-appropriate tasks that are evaluated on pass-or-fail basis. To that end, while the lower grades assess only a candidate’s listening and reading skills, the higher grades also measure a test taker’s speaking (Grades 1, Pre-1, 2, Pre-2, and 3) and writing (Grades 1 and Pre-1) skills. Though the expectations for each task may vary according to a test taker’s level, the consistent structure and framework is meant to provide a basis for self-evaluation (and therefore motivation) over time. For example, both the Grade 4 and Grade 2 exams use oral comprehension exercises – questions that have answers based on recorded conversations that are played twice – as part of their assessment of listening skills but use drastically different topics in each.
The STEP Eiken is offered at more than 18,000 testing centers at junior high schools, high schools, colleges, and other centers of higher education throughout Japan. Outside of Japan, the EIKEN is offered by more than 100 institutions in 48 countries. It is important to note, however, that not all levels of the exam are offered at all locations and, moreover, test dates and times can vary by country. To confirm test times and fees – and to obtain free, grade-specific practice materials, check the official STEP Eiken test administration page.