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[Editorial] Obsession with scores

Colleges should diversify admission system; government must invest in national universities

March 13, 2024 - 05:31 By Korea Herald

The state auditor’s latest disclosure of illicit trading of test questions between schoolteachers and cram schools known here as hagwon once again reminds one of the need to further diversify the college admissions system.

The Board of Audit and Inspection said on Monday it has requested a police investigation into 56 people, including 27 schoolteachers who sold exam questions to the after-school study centers for violating the anti-graft law, obstruction of business and bribery by breach of trust.

Through a three-month inquiry beginning in September, the BAI found cases where a group of schoolteachers sold test questions to the private institutes and used them in school exams. Those who accepted 50 million won ($38,000) or more in the five years to 2023 as well as those who received less but have committed serious crimes will be subject to the police probe, the BAI said. They include a college professor, four employees of the Korea Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation and a former college admissions officer.

One of them, a high school teacher who had served on review committees for the college entrance exam Suneung as well as Suneung mock tests that are administered nationwide, enticed eight other schoolteachers who took part in writing the tests to engage in a questions-for-money scheme. From 2019 to May last year, they wrote some 2,000 questions for mock exams, and provided them to businesses and individuals in the hagwon industry in exchange for a total of 66 million won.

Another high school teacher organized a ring of 35 schoolteachers, including those he met while authoring workbooks published by the public education broadcaster, EBS, which Suneung questions are supposed to be based on. Some stole files of the EBS workbooks before they were published, wrote similar questions and sold them to hagwon instructors. This is how the same excerpt from the book “Too Much Information” by an American legal scholar was used in a mock test published by a hagwon lecturer, an EBS study guide and the Suneung in November 2022.

The findings bring Koreans back to the problem of their widespread obsession with the Suneung. Because of the gap in college education, best quantified by the differences in income after graduation and the amount of money universities spend per student, Koreans work hard, often too hard, to get into a good college. Because Koreans believe everything other than raw test scores opens room for corruption or unfairness, much weight is given to one's Suneung score in admissions.

The situation gets sadder and unhealthier for high performers. In regular admissions, as opposed to early admissions where more weight is given to high school grades, in-school extracurricular activities and essays, one point on the Suneung can make a difference in the college or department one can enter. After decades of this, the country’s leading hagwons in Seoul’s Daechi-dong have set a trend of having children learn years ahead of their grade so they can focus on seeking perfection in high school. With up to 80 percent of seniors at high schools in Seoul’s Gangnam-gu, and over 30 percent nationwide now choosing to retake the annual Suneung, the Korea Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation has no choice but to include ridiculously tough questions in the exam to better assess high performers.

Like the rest of the world that has witnessed the power of education, Koreans will continue to spend much of their income on their children’s studies. If they‘re going to spend anyway, it would be wise to spend on something that would be more useful throughout their kids’ lives as the world's industrial landscape is changing quickly with the advent of artificial intelligence.

Cracking down on irregularities in the shadow education market is a must for a nation that owes its growth to its pursuit of fairness and equal opportunities for all. But the government and universities should also work on diversifying the admissions system to encourage and foster types of education that will better prepare pupils in the AI-powered future.

To help mitigate the downsides of intense competition children and teenagers go through, the government should also seek to bridge the gap in the quality of college education by drastically increasing investment in national universities nationwide.