A test is an objective means of analysing who is the best at something in particular. A test is a way to see who is best suited for a particular job, course, or future, so it is the best way to choose applicants, or at least make the decision a lot better, right? Well, no it isn’t. Tests have as many disadvantages as they do advantages for both those giving the test and those taking the test, which I’m sure most of you are aware of.
I couldn’t feasibly or reasonably accuse every test in the world of falling into this category, and I am not going to point the finger at anyone who does or gives tests regularly. What I want to do here is to use Korea as an example of how testing effects not only the people taking the test, but also the rest of the country.
Korea is a country that, one could say, loves a good test. Tests are used to decide practically everything in terms of a person’s career. There is a phenomenon here that exemplifies this; the country starts work an hour later on the day the national exam for entry into university, called 수능 (Korean SAT), takes place. This so that the students taking the exam won’t get stuck in traffic and be late for the rest of their lives – of course it can always be done next year but when you are under so much pressure to perform and then you have to delay it another year, why would you want to?
It’s a massive national effort to make sure every eighteen year-old has as much a chance as everyone else to do the test. So much rests on this test that people all over the country get behind the students in a peculiar.
The test puts so much pressure on students that many lose all impetus to study hard when they get into an actual university. In fact the competitive and progressive learning atmosphere that you would usually attach to university is removed. This is because once they are in the university they essentially are prepped for their next examination, which is usually for a professional qualification. Students are frequently given high grades because it is recognised that employers look at grades before ability. Students don’t really learn, they just get the qualification without actually being qualified.
This is where I have some big problems. It’s been said to me on several occasions that the job market in Korea is very competitive, and that I, yes I mean me, should help students to get a better job because of this. Well I don’t agree, in fact I staunchly disagree.
Where in the world did these students develop the concept that the Korean job market is the only difficult and competitive environment out there? Do they honestly think that in every other OECD country graduates walk into brand new and great jobs straight away? Do they think that I just walked into a good job straight away and have been blessed ever since? Well if they do, their idiots. But, I don’t think they’re idiots. In fact I know they’re not idiots. They are in fact poorly guided and influenced.
There is a mentality, and it’s not a bad mentality as it is similar to the rest of the developed world, that a good corporate job is ideal for a young person because the job offers security as well as a chance to progress up the ladder. But for this to persist as the be-all-and-end-all of one’s only employment goals then what can be expected? The result is the prevalent ideology in Korea.
Surely, someone must turn around and say, no it’s ok, you will not get that great job straight away and you will have to do things you don’t want to do, but if you work hard and slowly set yourself attainable but larger goals then the job you want will arrive soon. You just have to persist. I’ve talked with a lot of university students and this mentality does not exist.
Now, you are wondering where the finger should really be pointed, because that’s what should be done here. There are plenty of people who I could point the finger at: parents for not guiding their children adequately, schools and teachers for continuously subjecting students to the 수능, universities for not adequately subjecting students to a rigorous and invigorating experience that equips them adequately for their futures, or the students themselves for being so short-sighted as to not realise their reality. I could also point the finger at the entire society for allowing this objective division of people based on their results in a test (because this is what happens, I didn’t go into it because I’d never be done talking about it).
Honestly though, I don’t think anyone is to blame. It’s just the way things have turned out. But where I can point the finger is at the institutions that have exacerbated and elevated the situation to a point where it’s now out of control. These institutions take two sides – on one side are the schools and universities, and on the other is the private academies or 학원 that decorate every built up area in the country. Both sides play into each other’s hands creating the current environment.
It is taken for granted the schools and universities don’t do a good enough job at teaching their students, that’s why there are academies everywhere. In Korea you can go to an academy for everything, not just to study English. In fact I think it is mostly the English academies with the reputations that you hear of the most because they are the most popular. Take Yeongtong-dong (영통동) in Suwon, close to where I live. In one particular office/business building I counted at least ten academies ranging from music, math, English and a few I didn’t recognise. Half of these were English only academies.
Still, English or not, there are a lot of academies out there. Many school students for official and recognisable qualifications such as cookery and for English tests like TOEIC and TOEFL. The same institutions exist all over the world. But what of the ones that essentially just operate as a means of giving the students extra tuition and homework essentially because the schools they go to as full-time students don’t actually give the students the right experience necessary to take them into their desired future.
What the secondary schools do is insist that the students sit in until late at night constantly studying, and this is accepted as something that has to be done. During the holidays it’s expected that students attend school maybe without wearing their uniform, and the academies give elementary and middle-school students intensive schedules so that they can catch up or pass some other test that hasn’t even been scheduled. So, while they might know the right answers they don’t know how to reasonably function outside of a classroom or in a different kind of classroom – there’s more that I can say here but I will refrain for now.
The constant focus on tests and grades takes away from the actual benefits of learning. Students are rarely equipped to actually use the skills they learn having been purely geared towards passing a test but not actually functioning in an environment where they may have to use what they have studied.
Take English as a perfect example: many students take tests in Korea that essentially ask for the right answer from four possible choices based on a question, many rarely have to use their language in the way they are prepared, many are unable to cope effectively in real situations, many claim to understand what people say but are unable to communicate what they want to express, many have only the function of using the language as translated from hanguel text and have little understanding of the concept that language is not an A=A science, but an inexact plethora of connections that has come together almost scientifically where A= A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, or possibly Z.
One person explained to me that testers don’t have the manpower to correct so many exams where students have to actually write out the answer and show that they understand and can adapt language to suit a particular situation. So because of this inability to cope students are short-changed into studying a language without possessing the skills to actually function with their knowledge. As a testament to all that I’m ranting about here, the increasingly high numbers of Koreans who travel abroad every year to learn English in other countries so that they can actually speak English shows that people understand the limits of the high-grades they strove so hard to achieve, yet they do nothing about it.
I want to conclude now with the hope of answering the question that you should be asking. Is there a solution?
Yes, there is. What is it? I don’t know, but allow me to offer a suggestion that may equip Korean education to become more reputable and effective. As a member of the rest of the developed world whose influence is growing rapidly and with more and more force, this is something Korea should be looking towards.
Remove the tests. Not all of them, but the majority of them. A test doesn’t prove the suitability of a person for anything, other than as a suitable candidate for passing a test. Re-focus the shift away from tests on actual personal and professional development where skills and experience are respected and a high-level of education is taken as a given.
A test is only beneficial if it tests skills learned, not how much you know. Take the major solicitors or accountancy exams in Ireland; if you are to take those exams you need to work in that area whilst studying. Why? Because knowing the answer isn’t the same as being able to practically implement it in a given situation.
Korea is one of the most dynamic countries in the world with many amazingly creative, productive, and intelligent people, but I often get the feeling that many of these great people get buried under the system and never get a chance to peak their heads up. If you look at some of the top young graduates these days many of them have studied in the United States or elsewhere, not in Korea or not in Korea for a long time. This surely points to recognition of the failures and lack of trust in the education system.
It’s time that the education providers started to change the way they offer and deliver education. More responsibility needs to be accepted by these bodies for those who pass through their doors. Just giving students a good grade doesn’t make them better candidates, equipping them with skills, both social and professional, does.
I can’t imagine instant success, but time will show that the right decision has been made and Korea can expect more rounded, intelligent, independent and open-minded graduates who will learn to build from the bottom up, which will let Korea be built upward. These young people should not expect to be dropped from a height and try to grab onto one of the many over-crowded opportunities flying by, because that’s what’s happening to them now.