Time to change the unfair and flawed exam

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Time to change the unfair and flawed exam

In less than 100 days, Korea will hold a test that decides the futures of its high school students. On the exam date, public and business offices open an hour later to keep the roads clear. Policemen operate a call center to drive potentially late students to their test sites. Lowerclassmen cheer all the arriving examinees with balloon sticks and banners. Some examinees’ mothers pray to their gods all day long or attach yeot (Korean taffy) on walls wishing for good results. This all-important test is the Korean College Scholastic Ability Test, also known as the suneung.

In Korea, one’s social status often comes from the name value of one’s alma mater. To get a job at a powerful company, usually called chaebol in Korea, people need to graduate from one of three elite universities - Seoul National, Korea or Yonsei - which comprise the widely known acronym SKY.

One’s suneung score has great influence in Korean college admission, to especially SKY. To apply regular decision, students need to take the suneung. In the regular decision round of Seoul National University, known as the top college in Korea, the weight of the suneung score is 100 percent. Yonsei and Korea University give the exam 90 percent. In most cases, even students who are applying early decision need to take the suneung. Thus, if students bungle this single test, it can have a huge devastating effect on their lives.

Some people say that the exam can actually measure the intelligence of students, but this is errant. What if the examinee feels nervous and messes up the test, or makes some little mistakes even though the student is very intelligent? The result of the tension and their errors is too harsh for students, since it decides their entire future.

According to the Korean Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation’s 2015 suneung score distribution, there were 6,630 examinees, 4.3 percent of the total, who received a full score in the Math B section. Because only the top 4 percent can receive the first grade designation, only one wrong answer can result in a second grade designation. If students receive second grade in the suneung math section, it is very hard for them to enter famous colleges.

Let’s look at the case of the United States, a country which has many high-quality universities with deep histories. There, they have a test called the SAT, which is similar to the suneung. The colleges consider SAT scores as one of the important factors in their admissions. But the difference is that students can take this test several times during their high school years (it is held seven times annually), while students in Korea have one chance during their senior year. So if students in Korea have a bad day, they have to wait a year for their next chance.

The second difference is that SAT scores do not hold as much weight in college admissions as suneung scores. For example, Stanford University, which recorded the lowest acceptance rate (5.3 percent) in 2013, eliminated 69 percent of the applicants who received 2,400 points (a full score) on the SAT. Harvard, Yale and Princeton eliminated 60 to 70 percent of their applicants who had a full score. Rather than considering SAT scores as an ultimate determinant in admissions, American universities also consider grade point average, school-related and outside activities.

How can a single test held once a year decide a student’s future life? As a high school student in Korea, I have been unable to make sense of it. The time has come to change this unfair and flawed exam. Korean colleges should decrease the weight of the suneung and increase other admissions factors, such as GPA scores, extracurricular activities and other student accomplishments.

by Lee Ho-jun, Freshman at the Hankuk Academy of Foreign Studies in Yongin


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