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Test-takers embrace challenges of ‘Suneung’

Jo Myeong-ja, 79, has taken a long detour en route to higher education.

As the oldest of some 630,000 students who took the annual college entrance exam Thursday morning, Jo stood outside the gates of Hongik University Girls’ High School, recounting her journey as youngsters chanted cheers and parents hugged their children in the background.

“I want to go to college. As long as there’s still time, I will do as much as I can,” the elderly student of Ilsung Women’s High School told local media.

After she was forced to drop out of middle school in 1950 as the war broke out, she said she is finally ready to see her dream come true.

Jo’s determination was echoed at some 1,212 venues across the country that hosted the state-commissioned exam, called the Suneung, which is considered the most crucial step for students seeking to enter college.

Students get a last-minute read before the college entrance exam at a school in Seoul on Thursday. ( Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Students get a last-minute read before the college entrance exam at a school in Seoul on Thursday. ( Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

The key subjects for the exam are math, Korean language ― of which students can choose between the easier A type and more difficult B type ― and English. Students also choose two subjects related to social studies, history and philosophy while choosing another subject related to a foreign language that is not English. Test-takers are graded on a nine-level curved scale.

As the test is held only once a year, authorities usually take extensive measures to make sure that students do not miss the exams, including extra police officers, special traffic control and grounding planes during the English listening section.

For Hyun, an 18-year-old student from Seoul, not even a bone fracture from a truck accident was enough to thwart her will to take the crucial exam. On her insistence to take the Suneung, Severance Hospital offered her a VIP room to take the test in while the Seoul education office sent four officials to oversee her exam.

She was not the only test taker who overcame obstacles. Seventy-five surviving students from last year’s ferry sinking ― which left 304 dead or missing and the country’s spirit shattered ― also took the Suneung.

“You have endured a period which no other high school senior can possibly comprehend. Good luck with the exam. You have worked hard for it,” wrote Yoo Kyung-keun, who lost his daughter in the fatal accident, on his Facebook page.

The focal point of this year’s exam was its difficulty. The government’s guidelines of an “easy Suneung,” which was established over concern for rising private education costs, have come under criticism for failing to distinguish each student’s academic competence.

In the government-commissioned mock test in September, the last one held nationwide before this year’s exam, students had to get a perfect score to receive the top grade for Korean language A, math B and English.

“This year’s Suneung questions were similar in difficulty to the last two mock tests,” said Lee Jun-shik, the head of the Suneung question committee at the Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation, fueling concerns that authorities have failed yet again managing the difficulty levels. The KICE is in charge of making the Suneung questions.

Lee stressed that the KICE placed extra effort to prevent errors by adding more members to the committee. Last year, the state-run organization was forced to admit faults in two Suneung questions, in the aftermath of which its former head was pressured to resign. The Education Ministry also launched a reform committee for Suneung.

Seoul’s education superintendent Cho Hee-yeon said the Suneung, and the competition-based education it represents, needs to be overhauled.

“Suneung is a system that classifies (students) into ratings. The exam should instead offer a way (for students) to prove what he or she has learned in various methods,” he said while visiting Yongsan High School in central Seoul to cheer on the test-takers.

The KICE will take complaints on Suneung questions until 6:00 p.m. Monday on its website, and the results will be reflected on the final answers for the Suneung that will be posted on Nov. 23. The applicants will be notified of their scores on Dec. 2.

By Yoon Min-sik