[OUTLOOK]CSAT cheating: really a shock?

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[OUTLOOK]CSAT cheating: really a shock?

A police investigation in South Jeolla province last month exposed a massive cheating operation among students sitting the all-important government-administered university entrance exam.
At least 141 students and a smaller group of ringleaders’ girlfriends each reportedly paid a few hundred thousand won to receive answers by text message. Small money, but large enough to raise suspicions that parents were involved.
At the same time, authorities have reported cases of identity fraud, with bright students taking the College Scholastic Ability Test, as the university entrance exam is called, on behalf of others.
The reaction to these revelations has been predictable. “We are shocked,” said an editorial in one newspaper.
When such words appear in editorials in English, it is natural for foreign observers to conclude that the nation is, well, shocked. But is Korea really shocked? And if so, why? Because, let’s face it, there’s a lot of shocking corruption in this society ―not by some “advanced nation” standards, but by the standards it sets for itself ― and you’d think people would be used to it. I mean, is there a chaebol chairman out there who hasn’t gone to jail yet for bribing politicians or officials? Has there been one day since press controls were lifted in 1987 when newspapers did not detail at least one such case?
The truth is that by the time they’re old enough to take the university entrance exams, students are old enough to read newspapers and to realize that getting to the top in this society requires a flexible approach to the law.
So what is so shocking about cheating on exams?
Actually, people have known for a long time that there has been some serious cheating going on. Many high schools have a laissez-faire attitude to cribbing by students because they want their boys and girls to get into good colleges.
The pressure on students from parents and teachers is not to be good, but to succeed.
As if this broader environment were not enough, the College Scholastic Ability Test itself does not appear to take itself seriously. When you think of it, a life-changing exam should have gravitas. But this one consists of a series of multiple-choice questions set by amateurs that does not test, as it should, a student’s ability to perform in the coming freshman college year.
It seems downright flaky.
This perception starts with its creation, which occurs in an atmosphere of farce. A group of experts in their fields, who are not experts in exam-making, which is a separate skill, is spirited off to a secret location to write the questions. The group is sequestered for a month like a jury trying a high-profile mafia case. Their garbage is not collected while they are there, just in case some of the examiners try to smuggle test questions out to accomplices.
Millions of won in payoffs to teachers and fees at cramming institutes have been invested in this moment. Do well and get to a college with a good name and you’ll find good jobs and potential marriage partners out there that will establish your status for the rest of your life.
So, given the importance on the one hand and the lack of seriousness on the other, no one is really shocked that people cheat.
The truth is that we’re not really shocked. We just feel we ought to be shocked. In other words, we are officially shocked. Privately, we may be surprised at the sophistication of the cheats and we may be angry that cheats get ahead of the honest kids we know. But our declaration of shock is a gesture.
Such gestures are accompanied by a need to apportion blame. The editorial in question further went on to suggest, “Someone in the government must take responsibility.”
Before anyone could think a bit more deeply and find the wherewithal to extend blame to politicians as the inspiration for campus corruption, lawmakers at the National Assembly proposed a law. As of next year, they say, exam sites will be monitored electronically.
I guess that takes care of everything.

* The writer is the managing director of Insight Communications Consultants, a public relations company. He is the author of “The Koreans and Kim Jong-il: North Korea’s Dear Leader.”

by Michael Breen
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