Education and Testing
One of the remarkable differences in the educations systems of the US and Korea is testing, in particular, standardized testing. In Korea, testing seems is embedded into the infrastructure of the system so much that it has become the purpose of education. On the other hand, testing in the US is important as a tool for measurement, but it is much less emphasized than in Korea. These different priorities have caused some significant outcomes in both countries. Students in the US are less worried about passing tests, and individually, have less fundamental knowledge of facts, in particular in the areas of math and science. However, because of the US emphasis on critical thinking and questioning, students can analyze, examine, and ask critical questions confidently. Students in Korea have a deep desire to enter the best universities by passing the appropriate tests. They memorize facts, they learn math and science, and they focus on the fundamental knowledge that forms the foundation of academics. However, they are taught little about how to analyze the facts they have learned or to ask critical questions that will deepen their understanding of the world.
I guess the ideal education system would combine both types. Korea has much to offer the US – which is why President Obama praised the Korean system when he came here. Ideally, students should come from a blend of both systems.
In Korea testing is seen as a way of offering equal opportunity to everyone. Ironically, the intense focus on national testing has caused the opposite problem. There is an unequal distribution of educational facilities in Korea, so, on the national college entrance exam (수능) students in Seoul (and more specifically Kangnam) attain the highest scores. Thus, most of the students that get into the most prestigious universities are from Seoul. Students from small towns and small high schools don’t have the same opportunities. In other words, such testing has caused great inequality in educational opportunities for kids in Korea.
In the US state of Texas, there was a similar problem. The University of Texas in Austin is one of the best public universities in the US, and the best students in Texas generally want to attend UT Austin. The area around the university in Austin is fairly wealthy, and the high schools produced the students with the highest state-wide GPAs and with the highest SAT scores. As a result, most of the students from Texas in UT Austin came from Austin, and from the wealthy neighborhoods around the school. In 1997, the Texas legislature passed Bill 588, which guarantees that student from any school graduating in the top 10% of their high school class gets automatic admission to the state schools. In other words, kids graduating from a small school, in a poor town with few educational opportunities is given automatic admission to public schools in Texas, including UT Austin. Surprisingly, these students are performing better academically than the kids with higher SAT scores from wealthier communities. Universities greatly benefit from the much wider geographic and ethnic diversity in their schools. In fact, the results are so profound that in 2009 for UT Austin, a cap of 75% of the total number of students was put in place because over 80% of its student body was entering under this system.
I know that, recently, schools like SNU and KAIST have been trying to modify their admissions procedures. I hope that these modifications in accepting students will increase the geographic and cultural diversity of students in the major universities and provide more opportunities for students throughout Korea. Perhaps Texas can offer a few lessons.
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