[Viewpoint]Don’t play politics with college admissions

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[Viewpoint]Don’t play politics with college admissions

Some 600,000 students born in 1989 turned 18 this year. They are high school seniors who will be taking the College Scholastic Ability Test on Nov. 15. Some of them participated in a candlelight demonstration in Gwanghwamun, Seoul, in May 2005 before midterm exams when they were in the 10th grade. They were protesting the new high school grading system, which was changed from absolute evaluation to relative evaluation. They cried out, “My friends no longer share notes; the competition has ruined friendship.” Embarrassed by the students’ response, the Ministry of Education persuaded them that the midterm exams would not affect their chances for college admission too much and they would be able to make up their school grades with the CSAT and other criteria. The students believed the government and returned to the classroom.
Now high school seniors, they once again find themselves in chaos. The college entrance exam period is fast approaching, but the government and the colleges have not yet agreed on the rules of the game. On June 12, the colleges announced that they were considering reclassifying students applying for admission, giving the same score to those previously ranked in the top 4 percent. The Ministry of Education responded the next day that the schools would lose financial assistance from the government if they did. On the same day, the schools said it was not their official position. On June 15, the Ministry of Education demanded that colleges treat scores differently depending on the student’s grades and raise the percentage given school grades in the admission process. Two days later, colleges and universities decided to postpone the announcement of their final admission criteria.
Students are confused, not knowing how much their school grades will count or whether they will be able to improve their chances of admission with CSAT scores. As it stands, the students might have to play the game without knowing the rules. The Roh Moo-hyun administration announ-ced the new system in October 2004, and the key point was that students would be ranked between 1 and 9 percent instead of on a raw score and their school performance would absolutely be a factor. Since his presidential campaign, President Roh Moo-hyun has emphasized a policy of equalizing public schools.
As soon as he came to power, he tackled the college admission system. His justification was to reduce the additional costs of private supplementary education, thus normalizing public education. Coincidentally, the new system will be applied around the end of his term. The CSAT grading system will be announced on Dec. 12, seven days before the presidential election. Now that the school grading system has caused so much trouble, it is hard to predict how the new CSAT grading system will affect the presidential election.
The college admission system has been a favorite policy for different administrations to play with. In the 44 years from President Park Chung Hee to Roh Moo-hyun, the system has changed 11 times. In other words, the system has gotten a makeover every four years. Why does the government like to play with the college admission system so much? In Korea University professor Kwon Dae-bong’s diagnosis, past administrations took a populist approach to educational issues. During the military regimes, that lacked legitimacy, the government won support by diverting the attention of citizens to education. Since democratization, administrations have politically exploited the citizens’ enthusiasm for education.
Whenever the government has changed the college admission system, universities did not complain. Naturally, the students were the ones who endured the pain. In 1980, the entrance exams given by individual schools were suddenly abolished while the high schools were on summer break. Those who were high school seniors in 1993 had to take the CSAT twice and prepare for the entrance exam while working to earn good grades. Since 1997, college admissions have been based on the CSAT score, high school grades and a writing test, but chaos has ensued with the changing percentage given to school grades, the writing exam, and CSAT scores in the grading system. As a result, students are seeking extra help to get better grades at school. In the writing test, the inconsistent policy has ended up boosting the private education market.
In fact, the government has experimented with nearly every admission possibility. If there were an Olympics for college admission policies, the government would win a gold medal with a world record, hands down.
The game of college admissions is likely to continue in the next administration as well. The public is calling for a change to the existing equalization policy that fails to acknowledge the differences between regions and schools. All the presidential hopefuls are vowing to fix the policy. Former Seoul mayor Lee Myung-bak said he would give the admission authority to the colleges. Former Grand National Party leader Park Geun-hye said she would put the equalization policy to a vote. Other candidates are also advocating plans to cut private educational costs and reduce the authority of the Ministry of Education.
Politicians, however, must not exploit college admissions and experiment with the students. They should present a long-term plan with specific ideas, thoroughly addressing the problems of the current system.
Colleges and universities need to take responsibility as well. They cannot just continue to dance to the tune of the government. The schools should announce their admission guidelines firmly and confidently choose the students they want. It is too cruel not to inform today’s 600,000 prospective college students of the rules of the game that they will have to face in five months.

*The writer is a deputy city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Yang Young-yu
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