Beware unintended effects

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Beware unintended effects

*By the time a senior in middle school takes the national scholastic ability test to enter college in 2018, the English section will be evaluated by an absolute standard. Under the new criteria, the English exam will be graded according to an absolute standard set by the Ministry of Education, and grades won’t be relatively compared to other students or ranked according to the average performance. Upon passing a certain threshold, a student could get a perfect score in English. Education authorities believe the plan will likely reduce excessive competition and tutoring costs to study English. But others worry about a balloon effect because students may have to spend extra time and money to excel in the math and Korean-language sections, where relative scoring will remain.


From 2018, the English section of the college entrance exam will be evaluated based on an absolute standard. The new scoring guideline would regard students that pass a certain level on the same standard, unlike the relative grade on a curve where performances by individuals is compared with others and converted into percentiles to be ranked accordingly. Since the educational goal is to have students achieve a certain level, the absolute evaluation criteria would be more educational than relative grading.

The new grading system could help reduce competition and investment in English studying. But at the same time, it could divert the college entry philosophy in an undesired way. The standardized college entry exam is literally designed to test students’ eligibility in university education.

The exam’s primary role is to filter out students competing to apply for certain courses in certain universities. The exam is criticized every year for being either too hard or easy because it reduces its accuracy in assessing students’ true capacities. When the exam loses equilibrium, its function in measuring the applicant’s academic abilities also weakens.

Students applying for a university via a one-time state-administered college entry exam are accepted or rejected based on their test results. Each point means a great deal to them. Under the current college entry system, universities select students based on accumulated scores, factoring in both average grades and percentile grades. An absolute grade system would separate English from accumulated scoring because other subjects are based on the relative system. The applicant’s comparative ranking or evaluation is not possible when English is graded on an absolute guideline while other major subjects like the Korean language and math are appraised through relative measurements.

The absolute grading on the English section may ease imbalance in academic studies in high schools because of their primary focus on college entry. But it can undermine accuracy and fairness in the state-administered college exam. If English is evaluated separately upon absolute criteria, universities could come up with their own measurement to test applicants on English proficiency.

In order to draw and meet demand in English-excelling students, individual universities could add English essays or interview options. Then the education policy makers’ goal of easing the studying burden on students and parents will be for nought.

How to set an absolute criteria is a challenge. There may be various ways, but the mostly likely option would be a level test as being administered on Korean history. A level test can help ease private lesson costs and imbalances caused by English prioritization in high schools. But the effect will be temporary and provisional.

The zeal for English learning in Korea is not motivated by college entry alone. English proficiency has long become a qualification to get a decent job. English has become indispensable for careers and a kind of symbol representing social status or educational level. Even with absolute English measurement in college entry, the country’s cradle-to-grave obsession with English won’t likely go away.

The absolute measurement in English should be approached as a general problem of the way students are selected for college, not as means to ease excessive spending on English courses. Private education costs that weigh heavily on family budgets must be tackled. But changing the grading system for the college exam is not a lasting solution.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff


*The author is the head of the admissions and professor of education at Dongguk University.

by Ko Jin-ho
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