ridiculously important test is coming to my high school this week. The Korean 수능, or Sooneung, is the College Scholastic Ability Test, or CSAT – the test that almost completely decides their University futures. Tomorrow, 3rd grade (Grade 12 in Canada) high school students across Korea will write this 9 hour standardized test.
Luckily, some Korean universities now are starting to broaden their admission guidelines. They will now look at things like volunteer work, interviews, school activities and essays – but still, this test is a bulk of what university you might attend. There is also a big deal in what university you go to here. Going to one of the Sky University’s (Korea’s Harvard’s and Yale’s) guarantees you a good job and social status, while others aren’t as impressive.
How big a deal is this test? Huge. All Korean government workers come in to work an hour late the morning of the exam, mostly to avoid creating traffic jams and risking students not arriving on time. Police cars can also be called for students to ensure they arrive on time.
I’ve been told that my school will have two Korean Electric Power Corp. crews on site during the exam – just incase something happens with the electricity in our school. During the exam there are also two listening portions – one in Korean, one in English. During these portions, Korean air space is shut down – planes cannot land or take off. Any international flights are told to circle and wait above 10,000 feet – Incheon is one of the busiest in the world, handling 30,000,000 people per year – shut down.
There will also be at least two police cruisers at our school – to keep distractions out but also to keep students in. My co-teacher told me a story from 3 years ago where a girl in Donghae walked out of the test and across the street to a 12 story apartment building where she jumped off, killing herself – the pressure is insane.
Businesses have sprung up to advise parents on how to help children prepare for the big day. Newspapers and TV shows broadcast tips on study habits and foods that supposedly increase concentration and boost memory. Some popular dietary habits are based more on superstition than nutrition. For instance: Avoid slimy seaweed soup. It may let success slip away (they also recommend eating it while pregnant, to let the baby “slip out”).
Even outside the school mothers will gather and pray the entire day for their sons and daughters, with others spending the night before praying at a temple for their offspring. At my school, the 3rd graders homeroom teachers will be leaving for the day to go to a few Buddhist temples to pray for their students.
It has been done this way since 1993, and not once has a test question slipped before the exam. Why? South Korea’s Education Ministry goes to extraordinary lengths to keep the national entrance test fair. Every year, it chooses about 400 teachers and professors to prepare and review questions, and it sequesters them all for weeks in a resort surrounded by police. Cellphones and Internet contact aren’t allowed. What phone calls that are allowed are monitored. They are released from this
compound resort on test day.
But, remember, this is all about the students. I don’t teach the 3rd graders here because they are too busy all year preparing for this. I’ve mentioned how I don’t like how much the students study, and why I don’t think it’s best. But, they have stayed until 11 or so every night studying for Thursday for the last 3 years, and it all goes down tomorrow. Wow.
I’m going to show up at school for 7:30 to wish the girls walking in good luck, then I will enjoy my day off.
*Update: They are writing now… here’s a bit of what the scene looked like this morning. Pretty wild, but it was amazing to see.