Do you suppose the United States isn’t taking high stakes testing seriously enough? Sure, American parents try to make sure their children get enough rest and eat a good breakfast so they are physically prepared for test days. Teachers teach the content to be tested as well as test-taking skills for the entire school year. State tests, graduation tests, nationally-normed tests, college entrance exams and professional certification exams are a big deal because they can determine whether or not a student goes into the next grade, graduates from high school, gets into a good college, or successfully becomes a professional educator, lawyer, or accountant. We seem to add more and more high stakes assessments for our students to pass every year.
South Korean students take only one test during their school years. This test, taken when students are 18-years-old, is the sole determining factor in whether or not a student will earn a spot at a college. A student’s entire future hinges on the results of this one test. There are no do-overs, no second tries. This is a country that takes its high stakes testing very seriously indeed.
In South Korea, this year’s test will be administered on Thursday. To prepare, South Korean students have studied for 16 hours a day for the majority of their 18 years. South Korean parents have spent 16 hours a day for their child’s entire 18 years (and possibly even while the child was in utero) praying that their child will pass the test. Only students who get into the best colleges are offered the best jobs. No parent wants his child to be stuck in a low status / low paying job for the rest of his life.
The rest of South Korean society understands just how important it is for students to do well on this test. To make the ordeal as stress-free as possible, the South Korean stock market will open an hour later than normal to decrease the amount of traffic hindering students from getting to the test centers on time. Police will personally escort students who are running late. No aircraft will land or take off during the oral tests, and all cars and trucks are prohibited from using their horns. Proctors are specially trained, and are not allowed to cough, chew gum, or wear strong perfumes that might distract students. Yes, South Korea takes its testing seriously.
In some ways, it is nice to see a society so devoted to the education of its youth. I firmly believe that education is the answer to most problems. On the other hand, the stress on the Korean 18-year-old population is overwhelming. Students who don’t get into the best colleges become convinced that the rest of their lives aren’t worth living; the suicide rate when test results are released is high. I have trouble believing that this education system is really what is best for South Korea. It’s definitely not a system that American education should strive to emulate. Do Americans need to take high stakes tests more seriously? I think not.