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[Editorial] Enhancing academic ability

Number of underachieving students on increase

It is worrisome that the proportion of secondary school students falling short of basic learning skills increased this year for the first time in five years since a nationwide assessment test was introduced in 2008.

The results of the 2013 exam, which were released by the Ministry of Education last Friday, showed that 3.4 percent of middle and high school students across the country lacked the academic abilities needed to keep up with classroom lessons, compared to 2.6 percent last year. The proportion had kept falling from 8 percent in 2008 to 5.4 percent in 2009, 4.2 percent in 2010 and 2.8 percent in 2011.

A student is regarded as lacking basic learning capacity if he or she is found to have understood less than 20 percent of the state-set education curriculum. The increase in the number of such students should alarm the incumbent administration of President Park Geun-hye, which seems to be focusing on lessening academic stress rather than enhancing scholastic ability.

Minimizing the number of students unable to follow school lessons is the basic goal of education policies for primary and secondary schools. Efforts to reduce the burden on students can hardly be justified if they lead to a rise in the proportion of underperforming students.

This year’s academic achievement test was taken in June by 1.1 million students in the third year of middle school and the second year of high school around the nation. They were tested on three major subjects ― the Korean language, mathematics and English ― while the assessment given in previous years covered five subjects. Another new measure was excluding elementary school students from the testing.

By subject, the proportion of middle school students who lacked basic learning capacity stood at 5.2 percent in math, 3.4 percent in English and 1.3 percent in Korean. The corresponding figures for high school students were 4.5 percent, 2.8 percent and 2.9 percent, respectively.

Education policymakers should take these results seriously and redress their approaches unless they want to see a continuous increase in the number of underachieving students.

In this regard, they should reconsider excluding elementary school pupils from the academic assessment test. As many experts note, it is necessary to identify children with learning difficulties at an early stage and help them improve their learning skills so they will not be further left behind in higher grades.

It may be unfair to place all the blame on Education Ministry officials for the upturn in the number of underachieving students. Residents in many of the metropolises and provinces where students remain at lower levels of academic achievement have elected educational superintendents with progressive views. These educational authorities put emphasis on the rights of students rather than ways to prepare them for life in a rapidly changing and increasingly competitive society.

Advocacy for more autonomy and less restrictions in school life is not wrong in itself. But if not matched with effective efforts to enhance scholastic ability, this policy will end up in subjecting more students to fewer choices and more restraints when they enter society and look for a meaningful career.