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Korea to ditch grade curve for state English exam

Korea will implement an absolute grading system for the English section of the state-run college entrance exam, the Education Ministry said Monday at its first public hearing on the new policy.

Experts gathered to discuss how the new grading system can contribute to the ministry’s goal of reducing what President Park Geun-hye has described as “excessive English education.” The hearing was cohosted by the ministry and the state-run Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation, which makes the exam, called the Suneung.

While Monday’s hearing marked the first time the ministry has officially announced the introduction of the new grading system, the authority has been mulling it since earlier this year to tackle the skyrocketing costs of private education.

The state-run English test is currently based on a curved (relative) grading system and divides students into nine ratings. The official Suneung entrance exam, including an English test, plays a crucial role in earning admission to universities. The pressure to get the top grade of the Suneung exam is naturally high for students, forcing them to spend large amounts of money and effort on studying key subjects such as English.

“The curved grading system itself is not a negative factor. However, the purpose of school education should not be training students to become No. 1, but to make sure all students have mastered the subjects to a certain degree,” said Gahng Tae-joong, a professor of education at Chung-Ang University.

An Sang-jin, from civic group World Without Worries About Private Education, said the absolute grading system was expected to bring down private education costs that increase every year. Average expenses rose from 62,000 won ($58) per high school student in 2012 to 69,000 won in 2013.

“The current system forces students into ‘infinite competition.’ Even when the tests are easy, they are pressured to not make any mistakes,” he said.

Experts acknowledged that simply changing the grading system for English would not get the job done. They noted the so-called “balloon effect” where the cost saved from reduced English education may simply shift to other fields like math or Korean.

“The absolute grading system has an advantage over the curve, but it does not mean all the problems related to secondary education will be solved immediately,” said professor Park Chan-ho of Keimyung University. He added that colleges could have additional requirements to verify students’ competence.

Further concerns were raised that students, aware that the Suneung’s English section would not give them an edge in college admissions, may neglect studying English altogether.

Gahng suggested that every subject on the Suneung must adopt the absolute grading system, while Park said the English section should act like a certification system with just two ratings.

The government will hold two more hearings on the issue on Oct. 24 and Oct. 29, and will announce the specific plans for the Suneung English section later this year.

By Yoon Min-sik (