Tuesday, December 20, 2011

College Entrance Exams in Korea

This article from The Economist is all about the social and personal costs of this particular high stakes test, but I'm somewhat enamored of a country that values education so highly that its people act this way:
ON NOVEMBER 10th South Korea went silent. Aircraft were grounded. Offices opened late. Commuters stayed off the roads. The police stood by to deal with emergencies among the students who were taking their university entrance exams that day.

That's impressive, so let's read on:
Every year the country comes to a halt on the day of the exams, for it is the most important day in most South Koreans’ lives. The single set of multiple-choice tests that students take that day determines their future. Those who score well can enter one of Korea’s best universities, which has traditionally guaranteed them a job-for-life as a high-flying bureaucrat or desk warrior at a chaebol (conglomerate). Those who score poorly are doomed to attend a lesser university, or no university at all. They will then have to join a less prestigious firm and, since switching employers is frowned upon, may be stuck there for the rest of their lives. Ticking a few wrong boxes, then, may mean that they are permanently locked out of the upper tier of Korean society.
In this section

Making so much depend on an exam has several advantages for Korea. It is efficient: a single set of tests identifies intelligent and diligent teenagers, and launches them into society’s fast stream. It is meritocratic: poor but clever Koreans can rise to the top by studying very, very hard. The exam’s importance prompts children to pay attention in class and parents to hound them about their homework; and that, in turn, ensures that Korea’s educational results are the envy of the world. The country is pretty much the leading nation in the scoring system run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In 2009 it came fourth after Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong, but those are cities rather than full-sized countries.

Korea’s well-educated, hard-working population has powered its economic miracle. The country has risen from barefoot to broadband since 1960, and last year, despite the global slowdown, its economy grew by 6.2%. In the age of the knowledge economy, education is economic destiny. So the system has had far-reaching and beneficial consequences.
Kids care when the tests have personal meaning--unlike California's annual standardized testing, that has no direct meaning for students at all.

Update, 12/21/11: This comment (why can't I link to a specific comment on this post?) is so awesome that I'm reproducing part of it here. While I support a free K-12 system in this country, I see the value in the following:
For example, textbooks are not issued by the schools. The textbooks are typically paperback books, printed on cheap paper, printed in two or three colors, and bought in local bookstores for $10-$15 each.

When I taught in a public high school here in the states, the students were issued books by the school, and since folks tend not to value things they don't pay for, the campus lost thousands of dollars per year in texts that were not returned, for one reason or another.

Korean texts-- at least the high school math texts which I have, from about ten years ago-- aren't larded with photos that show diverse groups of students sitting around and smiling as they use graphing calculators, or other such fluff. They are pretty much all business.

7 comments:

Rhymes With Right said...

In a system like that, I suspect that most of our students would spend their lives asking "would you like fries with that?"

I mean, what else is the future of a student who, the morning of his final exam, would ask the question "will this effect my grade at all?" Fortunately, one of his classmates turned to him and said "If you are stupid enough to need to ask that question, it most likely won't change your grade in the least."

Kid #1 saw his grade remain the lowest in the class -- and Kid #2 has earned my eternal gratitude.

Cal said...

Wow, that's misreading Korea a lot. They don't "value" education. They live by test scores, and jobs are determined entirely by test scores.

They don't care much about education per se at all. Don't glamorize what they do. It's not pretty. You've read the stories about kids who sleep through school and then study at night with private instructors who "guarantee" good scores. This is not a culture who values education. It's a culture rigged to a hierarchy of points.

Anonymous said...

Certainly there are many things we could borrow from the Korean education system.

For example, textbooks are not issued by the schools. The textbooks are typically paperback books, printed on cheap paper, printed in two or three colors, and bought in local bookstores for $10-$15 each.

When I taught in a public high school here in the states, the students were issued books by the school, and since folks tend not to value things they don't pay for, the campus lost thousands of dollars per year in texts that were not returned, for one reason or another.

Korean texts-- at least the high school math texts which I have, from about ten years ago-- aren't larded with photos that show diverse groups of students sitting around and smiling as they use graphing calculators, or other such fluff. They are pretty much all business.

However these texts are also used on a national level in Korea, and the standards are pretty high. If we tried to implement national standards here, the NEA and its local affiliates would link up with the democrats and insure that everyone continues to receive the same sh*tty education they currently receive.

But while Americans look with envy at what the Koreans (and Japanese, and Taiwanese, and Singaporeans) do with their school systems, and sometimes try to ape things that are done in these systems, Korean K-12 schools are looking at us and doing much the same.

The system over there puts a lot of pressure on kids, and the suicide rate reflects that. Too, many Korean students emerge from K-12 and are basically sick to death of books. While there are serious students in Korean unis, a significant proportion of Korean uni students don't really do that much in college. Korean unis tend to be difficult to get admission to, but once you're in, it's not hard to graduate. I don't have any hard statistics on retention and success rates for Korean uni students in Korea, but my guess is that retention and success rates in American unis are significantly lower than what you typically see in Korea, because American unis tend to be easier to gain admission to, but harder to graduate from.

My take on the system there is that it also tends to dehumanize the students to a certain extent. They emerge from K-12 with less individuality than American students, and they often don't have hobbies or extra-curricular interests.

But the social fabric in Korea is very different from the social fabric here, and that is why aping the Korean system probably won't work here.

Peter Reilly said...

Ireland has a similar system. I happened to be there the week results were coming out.

teachergirlbooks said...

You might find this post at Ask A Korean interesting:

http://askakorean.blogspot.com/2011/11/can-you-go-to-college-in-korea-take.html

The Korean translated portions of the test into English and gives a bit of background on the test format.

Anonymous said...

There was one other thing I forgot to mention.

We have many friends in Korea, and during a visit about ten years ago I was talking with the high-school aged son of one family we know. I asked him what he wanted to study at uni, and he said he was interested in graphic design or applied art of some kind. I asked him how many hours per week he spent studying mathematics, and he estimated it was around 15 hours per week, which includes both his homework from school, plus his uni entrance exam prep. Basically he knew that his dream of studying graphic design at a good uni in Seoul was useless if he could not gain admission. So even though he probably does not need mathematics as much as some for his field of interest (who knows, maybe he ends up programming some video games or some such thing), he must score well on the uni entrance exam, or game over and thanks for playing. He could always go to a second- or third-tier uni in the countryside, but the job prospects for graduates of same are weak.

In order to prep students for this exam, there are many resources available. For example, the Education Broadcasting System, or EBS-- a broadcasting company in Korea akin to PBS here in the states-- used to run a math problem solving show. I don't know if they still run it or not; I can't find anything on YouTube or elsewhere that gives an idea. Basically the students who are interested in following the show can buy a cheap paperback text in local book stores that contains the problems which will be covered on future EBS math shows. EBS has a crew of math instructors which host the shows and basically work out the problems on a chalkboard.

What is striking to me about these shows is 1) the level of difficulty of the mathematics, which is very high compared to what we typically see here in the states, and 2) the impeccable boardwork of these instructors. The camera films the board from fairly close up, so they have to write a concise, easy to understand solution to these problems in a fairly small piece of real estate on the chalk board.

As an aside, I was once involved with a bullsh*t project that was run out of CSU Pomona, and one of the principals in this program was Jack Price, former president of NCTM.

I had obtained a few hours of these EBS math shows on video tape, and was able to show 30-40 minutes to this gathering of math teachers, including Jack Price.

One of the problems shown involved rotation of coordinates using a 2x2 matrix. I overheard Jack asking someone else what they were doing, as he had apparently never seen anything like this. Yet he was the president of NCTM.

Final thought: humans are adaptable. If you grow up in this system it does not seem as incredible as it does to us, who did not grow up in this system. One of my old proffies used to post English translations of undergraduate mathematics entrance exams (or something similar) to Moscow State university. The problems were breathtaking in their difficulty.

mazenko said...

I remember this yearly news from South Korea when I taught English in Asia. And, of course, the reason I taught there was because there is such intense competition to get into college-bound junior high and high schools that parents send their kids to cram schools in the evening for extra work. Admittedly, these countries have created and awkward education system focused on test scores as the key to education. But they get the results they want.