I just ran across this editorial from the Chosun Ilbo fretting that top students in Korea don't stack up as well with those from other countries as do students overall.
Citing the 2009 PISA results, which came out last month, the article said:
Korean students excelled in the overall rankings among the 34 OECD member countries, coming first in reading and math and third in science, and out of all the 65 participating countries they ranked second in reading, fourth in math and sixth in science. But Korea's best lagged behind their counterparts abroad...
Korean students in the upper 5 percent ranked ninth out of 65 participating nations including 31 non-OECD member countries in reading, fifth in math and 13th in science.
Some experts here speculate that the reason top students are slightly less successful is that there are not enough opportunities for elite students to excel. Indeed, the public system puts a strong emphasis on equity.
There are very few programs and schools for gifted students relative to the population and the demand, and curriculum is rarely differentiated. English classes are the only places where you are likely to find ability grouping, but the curriculum is still the same for each class.
This may be starting to change. I visited a high school in Gumi that was experimenting with differentiated math classes. And many high schools are creating science clubs after school where top students can work on inventions or science projects. For now, students go outside their public schools to private academies to find enrichment or accelerated lessons.