[Outlook]The admissions dilemmaWhen the government demanded that universities give at least 50 percent weight to high school academic records in determining admissions beginning this year, it went too far and had to retreat. Now, universities are told to cooperate on the new guidelines “voluntarily.” Govern-ment authorities have told the universities that without the change, students would be stuck going to after-school academies to cram for entrance exams and that universities would be unable to reform the way they choose entering freshmen.
The government argues that universities have ignored their responsibility to encourage more egalitarian education by choosing students on the basis of little else besides high university entrance exam scores.
But is that true? One worry is that once high school academic records become more important, corruption may enter the scene. Dishonesty may increase and parents may try to intervene more often in the classroom to try and raise their children’s academic grades. Aside from these concerns, however, increasing the importance of high school grades is not likely to normalize classroom education or reduce the reliance on cram schools. High school academic records are determined by 12 sets of exams given over the three years of high school, including midterm and final exams. Since the exams are assessed subjectively, students say the misery of your friend may result in your own happiness because students compete against one another. They could easily become obsessed with these test scores if the importance of school records grows.
Will spending on private cram schools decrease then? A popular teacher at a well-known private after-school academy says that he can easily understand what direction the business will take. By analyzing high school exams given over a period of a few years, the hagwon will produce courses based on past exams as a way to lure students into their classrooms. Desperate students will stampede to after-school academies.
Another reason for demanding that universities increase the weighting given to high school academic records in university entrance decisions is to provide more opportunities for less-privileged students to enter prestigious universities. This should balance the playing field for those who are not from elite areas or have not studied in foreign language high schools. This is a consistent policy goal of this administration.
However, the gap in quality between high schools remains huge. Even in Seoul, the academic capacity of students varies greatly between those attending schools south of the Han River and those on the north side.
If school records are rendered all the same regardless of the differing levels of schools, many well-qualified students will not meet the entrance criteria, whereas less qualified students will likely pass the entrance standard. This means that universities that aim to accept the most competent students cannot easily accept such a system. This is the reason why universities will look for ways to differentiate among various high schools’ levels of academic excellence if they are going to follow the government’s directive.
Almost everyone in Korea must be longing for standardized high school education. However, increasing the importance of high school academic records is not a magic solution to the problems of high school education.
A systemic approach is required for setting long-term and comprehensive goals and standards for university entrance based on high school curricula, specialized educational programs, nationwide academic achievement tests, different types of high schools, the autonomy of each school and the many other issues in education.
The government also is not solely accountable to solve the problems of university admissions. From now on, that burden should be shared with many others. A long-term policy can then be prepared to achieve the two conflicting goals ― standardizing high school education and reforming university admission procedures. A committee for educational development was already established in 2004 for that purpose. It included high schools, universities, parents, teachers’ associations, educational experts, private companies and many other interested parties. But the committee’s founder, the Minister of Education, resigned. If this committee had been more active the current tension between the government and universities need not have occurred.
It is at least a positive sign that the Ministry of Education intends to form a similar committee to review its approach to university entrance requirements. But if the government attempts to produce a pro-government committee simply to command that the universities obey, it will face more severe opposition from members of the public and academia.
*The writer is a professor of education at Hanyang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Jung Jin-gon