South Korea’s Suneung
The World’s Toughest Exam
Every year in November, around 500,000 students from across South Korea take the notoriously high-pressured exam which brings the whole country to a standstill. Silence descends across the capital Seoul as public offices, banks and the stock market open an hour later than usual to help ease traffic and ensure students arrive on time for the exam. Most construction work halts, planes are grounded and military training ceases. All take-offs and landings at the country’s airports are suspended for 35 minutes during an English listening test. All planes in the air must maintain an altitude higher than 3,000 metres. The English test of this exam is notoriously difficult, so much so that many native English speakers (well-educated adults) have called it a “CRAZY” test after looking through some of the texts and questions put on test takers’ desks. This year 79 flights – 16 of them international – were rescheduled because of the exam.
The stillness is occasionally broken by distant sirens – police motorbikes racing to deliver students running late to their exam.
Many nervous parents spend the day at their local Buddhist temple or Christian church, clutching photos of their children – prayers and prostrating are sometimes timed to match the exam schedule.
The writing of the question papers itself is shrouded in mystery. Every September, about 500 teachers from across South Korea are selected and driven to a secret location in the mountainous province of Gangwon. For a month, their phones are confiscated and all contact with the outside world is banned.
How is Exam Conducted?
During the eight-hour exam, all students are given a score of 1 to 9 (with 9 being the highest) on each of the core subjects: Korean, mathematics, English, Korean history; and the subordinate subjects of social science, science, vocational studies and either a second foreign language or Chinese characters.
Officially, every student’s individual score is published on a national website, one month after the exam. But bootleg websites, publishing almost immediately after the exam, allow students to compare their total score with the minimum required to get into the university of their choice.
Why Such A Stressful Exam?
South Korea has one of the most highly educated populations on the planet. A third of people without a job have a university degree. With youth unemployment at its highest rate in almost a decade, it has never been harder to get into a good university.
The Suneung 2021 was conducted on November 18 and according to the South Korean Ministry of Education, a total of 509,821 people had signed up to take the exam.
The Suneung has been a rite of passage for South Korean youth since it was introduced in 1994, but doubts are increasingly creeping in over how effective it really is in preparing young minds for the future.
1. A test of wealth
Suneung was once seen as a source of social mobility, a way for poorer students to access a university education. However, the pressure on parents to fork out thousands per month on private tuition is leaving poorer families behind. Critics say it has become largely a test of wealth, a measure of whose parents could afford to send them to the ubiquitous cram schools that have grown up to cater to those seeking an edge for their children. They also question its emphasis on rote learning and memorisation of facts, at the expense of creativity.
2. Decrease in Population
Such escalating costs are also one of the main reasons why South Korea’s birth rate is the lowest in the world. Parents would rather invest more in a small number of children. Successive governments have tried to rein in the cram school industry, not only for the sake of the parents’ pockets, but also out of concern for students’ wellbeing. Today, by law, cram schools in Seoul are meant to close no later than 22:00, they cannot teach any material ahead of mainstream schools and fees have been capped.
But, critics say, it’s not enough. The problem is, even with all these changes, the private side of education is so dominant in Korea. It’s so common to send students to cram school and private tutoring that those with more money are still more likely to get into a prestigious university.
3. High school dropout rates
Critics blame that while schools concentrated on following the curriculum set by the government, the questions on the Suneung were set separately and did not always reflect the curriculum. Consequently, it is common for students to pay more attention to private study books specialising in the Suneung that are made by the Korea Educational Broadcasting System.
Students in the 12th grade, the final year, are notorious for finding excuses to miss school classes so they can spend more time at cram schools and private study. There have even been reports of students dropping out of school to prepare full-time. South Korea’s private education industry was worth 9.3 trillion won (US$7.9 billion) last year with 5.35 million students receiving some form of private education.
According to the Korean Educational Statistics Service, out of the 509,821 students who registered to take the Suneung this year, 14,277 either dropped out or were not attending school regularly.
The system’s focus on scores is often cited as a factor in mental health problems facing the young. The test is blamed for creating a system in which people from an early age are labelled as “winners” or “losers” in education, and in life more generally, all on the basis of a single day’s work. Given such pressures, critics say, it’s not surprising that the exam is frequently linked to mental health issues and even suicides among the young.
The country has the highest levels of stress among young people aged 11 to 15 compared with any other industrialised country in the world, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Globally, suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people, but, in South Korea, it is the number one cause of death for young people aged between 10 and 30. And while the rate has in recent years decreased for almost all age groups between 30 and 80, suicides among people aged nine to 24 have been steadily increasing. In 2019, this group accounted for 876 suicides, or 9.9 suicides per 100,000 adolescents.
In some deaths, the Suneung has been cited as a direct cause.
It is due to these reasons that many South Koreans are now demanding the scoring system be reworked to encourage a more holistic approach to learning – and lessen the pressure on the young. Lee Yoon-kyoung, the director of the National Association of Parents for Cham (“true”) Education, says, “Suneung is destroying school education. We need to eliminate the competition aspect in education.” “It’s of utmost importance that students who don’t do well on test day – or ‘fail’ in their own words – don’t think of themselves as failures.” Lee wants the test’s scoring system to be replaced with a simple pass or fail, believing this would relieve some of the pressure on students to always be better than the person sat next to them.
The writer is a legal practitioner in Lahore.