Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

     Nov 30, 2005
Life and death exams in South Korea
By James Card

Last week, 600,000 South Korean students took an exam that will determine the future course of their lives - the ultimate goal being to reach the SKY.

In a country where students, not babies are born, young children are prepped, schooled, coddled and groomed to take the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT). From a tender age children, and their parents, are shooting for acceptance into one of the so-called "big three" Korean universities.

Seoul National University (SNU), Korea University and Yonsei University are collectively nicknamed SKY. Getting into one of

these institutions is considered a South Korean student's crowning life achievement. Not only will successful students have the best academic pedigree in the country, they will also have a strong alumni network that tends to be biased in hiring and mentoring grads from their alma mater. Even their currency as a marriage partner increases as a SKY graduate.

The national obsession that revolves around higher education is focused on getting a near perfect score on the CSAT, along with having top grades in school. Parents start their children on the educational track early on in an assortment of pre-schools that offer numerous early childhood learning programs that guarantee they will mold the brains of junior geniuses. Some are worthy, many are dubious.

A college entrance exam in many other countries usually generates only a shrug but on CSAT day in South Korea, intensity hangs in the air. Under government orders, businesses reschedule the workday so employees alleviate the traffic conditions for students heading to testing sites.

The National Police Agency asks motorists not to honk their horns near schools and teams of volunteers and special police units work as traffic managers. The US military halts live-fire training and aviation missions to give test-takers quiet time. The South Korean stock market opens late and closes early. This year, even the aggressive farmers protesting the rice market opening agreed to mellow out for the day.

In the lead-up to the test, nervous mothers pray for that extra edge on the CSAT. In the weeks before the exam, many visit Buddhist temples with photos of their children to be placed on the altar. They bow an auspicious number of times. Christian churches also push spirituality as a means for CSAT success by organizing prayer meetings and candlelight vigils.

The morning of the test, teary-eyed mothers kiss their sons and daughters as they enter the school. Younger students hold signs wishing good luck and victory to their older friends. Slapped onto some school gates is yut, a sticky candy that is symbolic of the Korean verb that means to stick, a colloquialism for getting one's name "stuck" to a top university. The night before, some of the bolder and desperate students rip off an "S" from the metal nameplates on Hyundai Sonatas or Ssangyong trucks. The "S" stands for Seoul National University.

During last year's CSAT, there was a spate of student suicides. This year one student committed suicide in Seoul on the morning of the CSAT. Numerous school-related suicides occur throughout the year, with this past April being especially tragic. A father in Gongju drove to his son's high school and torched his wife, daughter and himself with gasoline because his honor roll son disgraced the family with bad grades. All three died.

Statistics are unclear as to how many students end their lives because of education-related stress. Numbers from the National Statistical Office indicate that more than 1,000 students between the ages of 10 and 19 killed themselves from 2000 to 2003. In another report supplied to the education committee of the National Assembly by the Ministry of Education, 462 students (both primary and secondary) committed suicide in the last five years. Two surveys, one by the Korea Teachers and Educational Workers Union, the other by the Korea Youth Counseling Institute, found that 43% to 48% of students have contemplated suicide.

Many others are emotionally spent after they complete the test.

James Kobes, head instructor at SNU's Foreign Language Education Center, recounted a conversation with one of his students: "She said that when she finished her university entrance exam she started to uncontrollably cry because such a large mix of emotions, both positive and negative, hit her at the same time. She said that after she cried she felt empty because she realized that she had dedicated the best years of her young life to the exam and that much of her identity as a person hinged on the exam. Upon completing the exam, the force that had given her life structure and purpose was suddenly gone."

Kobes likened this feeling to an anthropological concept called "deep play", which relates to gambling where the consequences of losing far outweigh the advantages of winning. "Some people become so emotionally invested in games that they actually start psychologically damaging themselves - as losing is more costly than winning, such game players end up being damaged even if they have an equal number of wins and losses. Even the winners are harmed because of the intense psychological cost involved in playing in such an environment. I view the current state of the university entrance exam in Korea as a form of deep play: for some unfortunate students, the costs of losing far outweigh the benefits of winning."

The concept of "keeping up with the Jones" exists in South Korea; what kind of car you drive and how many pyeong (unit of measurement; 3.3 square meters) your apartment is provides for social envy and status flaunting. South Koreans take it further and are proud of how many supplementary classes their kids take, making it a point of pride that their child is tutored by a former SKY grad, or goes to the cram school with the best reputation.

As authors have literary agents for scheduling book signings and musicians have agents who book concerts and appearances, a new generation of South Korean mothers has taken the role of educational agent for their child.

They micro-manage every hour that could be spent studying, whether a weekend or holiday. It is common to study outside of the home past midnight. Students have come to loathe winter and summer vacations where they are enrolled in "intensive" gulag-like study programs. Having a summer or part-time job is rare for a college-bound South Korean teenager.

Being an educational agent mother sometimes involves bribery. This year the Korea Federation of Teachers' Associations surveyed 5,420 elementary, middle and high school teachers across the country. It revealed that 27% of teachers have accepted bribes from parents in exchange for giving their students preferable treatment.

Teachers' Day is May 15, an annual ritual to show appreciation and to shower teachers with small gifts. However in the past decade, gift-giving reached a point resembling outright bribery with some gifts of cash in the hundreds of dollars. Now guidelines are set that encourage parents to give teachers only token presents such as sweets, flowers and trinkets.

Most Koreans acknowledge that public education isn't good enough for their child to achieve academic success. The problems are numerous. A survey in 2004 reported that South Korea had the most crowed classrooms out of all Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, with classes averaging at 37.1 students in middle schools, compared to the OECD average of 23.7. The result of the perceived shortcomings of the public school system created a massive market for private education that takes the form of tutoring, "cram schools" and coaching classes that are designed with the ultimate goal of maximizing the highest possible CSAT score.

The social obsession to prime the student for the CSAT causes another burden of the family - the cost of funding the additional classes and tutors. The costs are brutal for most middle-class Koreans, with an average of US$700-$1,000 a month going to tutoring and cram school lessons. The Korean Educational Development Institute calculated that the total private education costs have risen from 7.12 trillion won (US$6.9 billion) in 2000 and 10.66 trillion won in 2001 to 13.65 trillion won in 2004; the highest of all OECD counties in private education tuition.

And though South Korea ranks low on international TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) scores, it spends an astronomical amount of money on English education, which is also key in university entrance. The Bank of Korea estimates the private English education market accounts for 4 to 5 trillion won, along with expenses of up to 68.4 billion won for studying for TOEIC and TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exams.

"I view it's not so much about educating the students but educating the parents as well," said Ham Joon-young, a Korean-Canadian educator working in Gangnam, the hogwon (English teaching center) epicenter of Seoul.

"The problem is that most hogwans are run by people who can't speak English. It's funny how they are so accepting of such low standards. Since their English is so low, they can't evaluate good schools and then they rely on trends."

With such huge amounts of money spent for extra education, the industry has attracted numerous fly-by-night schools and shifty tutors promising easy-to-learn programs. The ESL (English as a Second Language) industry in South Korea is internationally known to be one of the most corrupt and incompetent for foreign English teachers, with numerous complaints of extortion, scams and overall educator malfeasance. Although there is a huge emphasis on teaching Korean students to speak conversational English, the undercurrent of rote memorization prevails since it proves the most useful kind of test prep for CSAT, TOEIC and TOEFL exams.

The frenzy of extracurricular private education has its drawbacks, even through it complements the regular public school education. In 2003, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child deemed the hyper educational environment in South Korea violated the children's "rights to play". In South Korea it is rare to see teenagers climbing mountains, fishing along a river or bicycling in the countryside. Such activities are considered frivolous for a future CSAT test-taker, and the few hobbies that most students have can be quickly squeezed between study sessions.

Listening to MP3 files, text messaging friends and mastering computer games are de rigueur among the current generation of students. Sleeping is a popular pastime but a student proverb says if you sleep for four hours a night, you'll get into the college of your choice - if you sleep for five hours, you fail.

In August, Professor Kim Gyeong-keun at Korea University announced the results of his survey that revealed children from wealthier families scored higher on the CSAT than kids from low-income families. Kim theorized that there is a direct correlation with the high scores and the money spent on private cram schools. He also noted that students with higher CSAT scores tended to have parents with graduate degrees.

The current government administration is obsessed with the division of the educational haves and have-nots, a hangover from the 1980s military regime of president Chun Doo-hwan. All privately owned educational enterprises such as tutoring or hogwons were banned then with the goal to make a level educational field for all students to take the CSAT.

In the 1990s the ban was ruled as unconstitutional and the market exploded with educators of every subject hanging out advertisements promising high test scores and superior grades.

This year the government tried to alleviate the burden of cram school tuition by offering equal-opportunity tutoring to everyone. This spring it reinforced the CSAT lecture series on the Educational Broadcasting System (EBS), figuring anyone with a TV can access lessons for free. It was met with a lukewarm response until the government countered that the CSAT would have more EBS-covered content.

Students are acutely aware that their parents are spending huge amounts of money for them to succeed and the pressure is enormous. Without hobbies or accessible sports teams, the stress of constant studying takes on twisted forms.

Computer game and cell phone addiction are newly minted psychological maladies of the modern Korean teenager. A darker one is the commonplace wang-ta, the phenomenon of bullying for the sake of bullying. The name wang-ta is given to a student who is purposely ostracized by other students, forced to be a perpetual outcast and object of cruel ridicule and violence. Entire classes and even the entire student body can take part in harassing a wang-ta student. Children who are orphans or have single parents are often candidates.

While there is the pressure of the CSAT, there is also pressure in the classroom, the constant competition to score higher than other students. Although the CSAT is the most important criterion for admission into the top universities, students' grades are another key factor. The drive to be accepted into the top universities not only puts pressure on students, but also on high schools, which battle for the prestige of putting large numbers of students into SKY universities.

Representative Chin Soo-hee of the Grand National Party released a parliamentary audit this year that indicated that 60% of high schools nationwide were inflating student grades and 22% recycling mid-term and final exam questions from previous years in order to make the test easier.

Last year's CSAT was the setting for the largest cheating scandal of recent times. Students in Gwangju used cell phones to cheat on the exam by orchestrating a relay system where students answered questions from outside of the test site and text messaged answers to the test takers, who paid 300,000 won to 900,000 won for various sections of the test.

Authorities had previous tips about possible cell phone cheating but failed to act on them. Although the incident caused a major shockwave in South Korean society, it was nothing new. Earlier that spring, a ring of test scammers was busted for supplying answers via walkie-talkies to 83 transfer students taking a similar entrance exam to top universities. And six weeks before the CSAT, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported that Koreans taking the test at Korea International School in Seoul would use the time difference to feed answers to others taking the CSAT in the US.

For this year's CSAT, the government took greater steps to reduce the possibility of cheating. There were metal detectors at some test sites, cell phones and electronic gadgets were banned, handwriting samples were measured against original samples to prevent proxy test-takers and task force teams of cyber-crime experts monitored Internet websites that might tip them to cheating conspiracies.

With the stricter rules in place, 27 students were suspended from taking the test because they entered the classroom with cell phones or MP3 players. Under the new law against cheating, test scores are voided and those caught are banned from taking the next exam a year from now. Cheaters also have to take 40 hours of "character training". Their parents have formed a protest group to argue their interpretation of fairness.

CSAT results will be released to students in mid-December, and then finally they will know their academic fates.

James Card is freelance writer in South Korea. He can be reached at www.jamescard.net

(Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing .)



All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd.
Head Office: Rm 202, Hau Fook Mansion, No. 8 Hau Fook St., Kowloon, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110