The hard way to higher learningHan Gyeong-jin placed a message on her cell phone last week after taking the college entrance exam. It was a short comedy skit, though she has no comedic aspirations. All she wants to do is get into college, and if having a little fun to relieve the stress will help her reach that goal, then she is ready to do even a song and dance routine.
And this 17-year-old would not be alone. Last Wednesday 670,000 Koreans flocked to exam centers nationwide to take the College Scholastic Ability Test. Now they are waiting for the results of one of the most important events of their lives.
Up until test day, Ms. Han, who is a third-year high school student, spent most of her time preparing for the exam. Since her freshman year, she has waken at 5:30 each morning to study. After school she studies until her 1 a.m. bed time.
“Of course you can graduate from high school and follow a dream. But in this society, a college degree makes it easier to succeed,” she says, explaining her dedication. While academic success often carries a hefty price, in Korea the cost can be measured literally in flesh and bone. During the entrance exam, one girl, after answering only a handful of questions on the 200-question test left the exam center, went to the top of a nearby apartment building and jumped off. Another girl committed suicide after completing the exam. Three other students killed themselves before the exam.
Ms. Han, who calculated her approximate test score, is confident she will be admitted into the political science and economics department of Korea University, one of Korea’s top academic institutions. But she still wishes the nation’s education system were different, especially in light of the recent suicides.
Once again, after a national examination day, Koreans are asking: is there a better way to assess the potential for academic success for students who attend institutions of higher learning?
“Every year, a student commits suicide over the exam,” says Song Won-tae, a spokesman for the Korea Teachers Union, one of the two major teacher unions. “What makes these students kill themselves are not mental or personal problems, but a structural problem of the education system in Korea.”
Hwang Seok-kun, a spokesman for the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations, agrees. “Students think that they are losers when they fail to do well on the exam. The problem, though, is not theirs.”
When Ms. Han took the test, she found it did not test what she learned in 12 years of schooling, but what she learned in a hakwon, or cram institute. “It’s really stupid,” she says. “One exam cannot test all of my capabilities. I wish I had more chances to show my talents.”
Kwon Gi-hyeon, another high school student who recently took the test, agrees. The Tuesday after his exam, he is recuperating and sleeping well into the afternoon. In an interview over his cell phone he says, “It’s ridiculous that a college admits its students based on one exam.”
Ms. Han adds, “Middle school students are studying until midnight to get into good colleges. Even if they don’t want to do it, they’re stuck studying. It’s a part of the culture. They’re in middle school, for crying out loud.”
Despite the rancor, students and their families put themselves through rigorous mental training because of the importance of graduating from a good college. A 1995 study, “The College Admission and the Family,” reports that preparation for the exam is placed above the health, emotional stability and happiness of Korean children.
“Right now, students have to go to hagwons if they want to do well on the college admissions exam. That additional study not only takes away from time to enjoy your childhood, it costs a lot of money,” says Mr. Hwang, the union spokesman.
Jung In-jung watched her two children endure the testing process because she wants the best for her children. “Getting in to a good college in Korea could decide my children’s future,” she says, “including getting a good job, finding a suitable spouse, maintaining a good married life and all those things.”
She says: “I felt nervous watching my children. They put in so much.”
The education system in Korea is somewhat fluid. Until 1953, each university had its own admissions test. Then, until 1963, students took a College Scholastic Ability Test that covered the subjects taught at high schools. From 1964 to 1968, the colleges took charge again. After that, the score on an exam managed by the Ministry of Education and the academic achievement during three years of high school became deciding admission factors.
A new form of the CSAT was introduced in 1994, and the Korea Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation has since been in charge of managing the test. That first year, there were three sections: Verbal (Korean), Foreign Lanuage (English), and Mathematics and Inquiry 1. Students had two shots ― summer and winter testing. The difficulty levels of the two exams, though, were considerably different, creating confusion among the students.
Since 1995, students have had one opportunity to take the exam, and the Mathematics and Inquiry section was divided into Mathematics and Natural Science and Social Science. In 2001, the section on a second foreign language was introduced. After taking the exam, and getting a ranking, students are able to apply to three university programs.
One suggested change is to administer the exam more than once during the year. “Right now, students only have one chance a year, and it has a negative psychological effect on them,” Mr. Song says. He suggests averaging several test scores or accepting the highest score.
Ms. Han agrees. “With the American SAT, you can take it several times. So it’s not like everything hinges on one exam.”
Jung Bong-mun, an official at the Ministry of Education, says that giving more tests during the year is not an option due to a “lack of resources.”
Other educators are rallying to modify the test. “The test is too difficult,” says Mr. Song, the union spokesman. “It’s a heavy load for students to deal with school work and prepare for the exam.”
Mr. Jung says that the solution shoul be part of a long-term plan. “If the system changes too quickly, current high school students will be victims,” he says.
Next year’s exam is supposedly being modified. Even though students still have just one shot, they can choose the subjects they are tested on according to the requirements of the college they want to attend. A section on Chinese characters will be added. The whole objective of the reform is to reduce students’ workloads, thus freeing them from the psychological burden.
Mr. Hwang suggests giving colleges the independence to create their own admissions criteria, using the CSAT as the basic requirement.
Others say that would create too much work for a student who may want to apply to multiple colleges.
Still others say the current system is an improvement from previous ones. Nam Myung-ho from the Korea Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation says the test before 1994 focused on rote memorization. “Students were required to spill out the exact day of a certain historic event and know the results of some scientific experiments without performing the experiment themselves. The motto was, “Don’t need to think. Memorize. Memorize.
“That’s not to say that overall conditions of the education system have been dramatically improved since 1994, but at least the current CSAT requires the students to use some reasoning process to solve problems.”
But change is slow. For now, the most viable option is early admission. Only a limited number of colleges offer this plan in which admission officials evaluate a student’s academic achievement history, personality ― including leadership skills -- and letters of recommendation from teachers. Some schools still require students to take the CSAT.
At Seoul National University, about 30 percent of the roughly 4,000 freshman admitted each year are accepted through this process. In 2005, Seoul National plans to extend this system. They will give incentives to students from high schools outside Seoul. The school will also arrange early-admission procedures for students who have special talents in certain areas, such as language, science or literature.
One reason some students choose not to take the early admissions route is because of the importance most schools place on their ranking within their high school class. Competition for grades is fierce at specialized high schools, like those focusing on foreign languages or science, which is why Ms. Han chose to take the CSAT.
For now, those who do not do as well as they want on the exam either have to enroll in a college they do not like, pursue higher education abroad, skip college, or study for one more year and take the test again. Students who take the test a second (and in some cases a third) time, are considered pariahs.
“I decided to study another year to go to a school that my parents would approve of,” says Moon Ha-na. “I thought it would be easy. But the process was so hard. While my friends were enjoying college life, I had to study all over again. Was it worth it? Not really.
“I think I wasted one precious year of my life. I should have spent the time studying things that interest me, not memorizing some boring poem,” she says.
And what happens after all the effort that goes into being admitted to a university? Lee Jung-bi, who got into college through early admissions, says, “Most people, once they get into college just play.”
No more pencils, no more books .. for now
While most high school seniors were preparing for last month’s entrance exam, several thousand of their peers were engaged in other pursuits. Three of those students, all JoongAng Daily interns, were accepted to university without taking the dreaded College Scholastic Aptitude Test through an early-admissions program. They spoke recently about that program and their plans.
Why did you decide to apply early to college?
Lee Jung-bi: My practice CSAT test scores were not stellar and I heard the competition to get into college in the second semester is fierce. I had to attend a learning institute to prepare for early admission, take an essay test and do an interview. Each college has a different early-admissions procedure. I got into the business and management program at Ehwa Womans University.
Lee Yeon-jung: I was worried I would not get into a good school if I took the CSAT. Even if you get a good score on the CSAT, you are allowed to apply to only three colleges. I was admitted to the social science department at Ehwa.
Lee Min-seok: It was the best way for me to be accepted by the college I wanted to attend, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. My parents suggested that I apply early.
Is this process easier?
Yeon-jung: I thought it was easier. I had to study for the TOEFL and TOEIC, while my friends had to study a variety of subjects.
Jung-bi: I thought it was harder. I came to Korea when I was in middle school. I know some people say early-admissions students have it easier, but I tried as hard as other students. While they were studying other subjects, I was studying English and Korean. I had to read a lot for the essay and interview, things like Time magazine and The Economist.
Are you happy with your choice?
Min-seok: When I found out through the Internet that I was accepted by the college I chose, I felt pretty special. I have mostly been taking it easy, but also studying. I have studied Chinese at Korea University, which gave me a chance to meet new people. I also have time to workout and take computer classes. I am going to take my driver’s license exam soon, too.
Jung-bi: I am not. Growing up in the States, I wanted to be an architect. But now I’m in the business and management program at a women’s university. A women’s university! I’m not really happy with my college, but I’m glad I’m not a part of the high school system anymore. I’m experiencing society, the real world, faster than my classmates. I’m busier now than before.
Yeon-jung: I found out through the Internet on July 31 that I was admitted. I was really happy. I was happy with myself and I played and played. My high school teachers asked me not to come to school because they thought I would distract the other students.
I goofed around for a month or two, but then I started learning Japanese, computer basics and found a part time job. By working, I’ve learned how hard it is to earn and save money. But I’m not completely satisfied, because I didn’t get the major I wanted, pharmacy.
Jung-bi: I feel the same way. Ever since kindergarten, I’ve been very independent. Starting from August, I’ve been making my own money. I don’t get an allowance anymore from my parents, which is why I don’t have any money these days. But I think my parents are proud of me, and have more respect for me. Some people think students admitted early to college are just wasting three months of their lives. Not true. I’m happy with where I’m at right now. Yeon-jung: It’s true that I’m playing around a lot now, but you have to enjoy the freedom while you can.
Min-seok: I agree with Jung-bi. I have more free time now, but I’m actually busier now doing things I couldn’t do before. I want to go overseas. Maybe Thailand or Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, I could work on my Chinese, because I want to be an interpreter.
Did your friendships with your peers change?
Yeon-jung: I didn’t make many close friends in my last year of high school. My homeroom teacher let me take classes in the morning, and then I went home to study for the TOEFL and TOEIC. I’d get together with my friends, but they would talk about the CSAT.
Min-seok: My friends and I were going in totally different directions. They were studying so hard for the CSAT that it was hard to talk to them. We didn’t have anything in common.
Would you want your child to take the CSAT? Yeon-jung: No. You think only the kids are stressed out? The parents are really stressed out,
by Joe Yong-hee