Saturday, November 20, 2010

National Test Day

More than 700,000 college hopefuls took the College Scholastic Ability Test this week. In South Korea, Test Day is treated with the reverence and preparations of a national holiday. 

A student who's running late gets
escorted to the 2009 exam. Life.
The government prepares meticulously for minimum distractions.  Airplanes are not allowed to land or take off during the listening portions of the foreign language tests. Many businesses and offices open an hour later to ease morning traffic, and police officers and other emergency personnel have  are often on hand to rush latecomers to their testing centers. 

If you blow your chance, you have to wait another year to take the exam, which is a critical gatekeeper for colleges. 

The exam takes nearly ten hours.  Sections include Korean language, math, English, social studies, science, and a second foreign language. Students usually take the social studies section or the science section.

At the high school in my neighborhood, the gates were closed at 8:30 a.m. and the normally busy street was quiet. About a dozen mothers stood quietly at the fence, not ready to leave just yet.  At some testing sites, underclassman come with tea and posters to cheer on the test takers in the morning.

Producer at EBS, test in hand,
preparing a program that will
review all the answers.
In the afternoon, I visited the Education Broadcasting Service, a public television network that was preparing for a marathon post-test wrap-up program including detailed answers to each question and analysis of how it compared to previous years. 

Later on, I checked in by phone with Oh Dong-Kwoang, who took the test for the second year in a row, after studying at a specialized academy for ten months, at least 12 hours a day.

He said the night after the test he turned off his cell phone and boarded a train bound for the shore. After a six-hour journey, he walked down to the beach and watched the sunrise. Then he turned around and went back home. He felt okay about how the exam went, he said. But after studying so much and focusing on one thing, he felt strange and a little sad for it to be over.

I also talked to his friend Ji Yong-Chang, a classmate at the academy and another second-time test taker. 

When I asked how it went, he responded: "So bad. So bad."  He improved his previous score by about 15 or 20 points, but not the 30-plus point jump he was hoping to make.  It was a lot harder than he expected, especially the English and Korean sections, he said.

Lower-than-anticipated results mean that he can't apply for the acupuncture programs he had set his sites on, nor the top tier colleges in Korea. He will probably apply instead for economics or statistics programs at other schools.

But he's taking it in stride and glad the test is over. And his parents are proud that he worked so hard to improve his scores, he said.  "This year, for me and for everybody, it was a very, very hard time. So we just hoped to finish the test," he said.

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