Tuesday, November 15, 2011

In Defense of The 수능 (Sunneung) the Korean College Entrance Exam, and other Really Hard Tests

The 수능 happened last Thursday: Korea's much-maligned College Entrance Exam. Flight paths were diverted, parents stuck toffee on the gates of schools... and students, politicians and officials, and University presidents talked about how much they hate the test... yet it carries on.

BBC had this to say about Korea's big test. The always-worth-reading Tom Coyner wrote this about Korea's hyper-competitive atmosphere.

And on blogs, and around bar tables, the expats who teach love to rip on Korea's test culture. Heard around the echo chamber:
1. All the smart peepuhl isn't good at do the test.
2. Multiple choice questions test memorization, not umberstanding.
3. Teaching toward the test makes a education the one-dimensional.
4. Students focused on test scores and rankings don't develop teh creativitys
blah blah blah.

As for the social implications:
1. Tests make teh suicide because pressure, bad score, and TEST, you know, right?
2. Studying all the tests wastes years of Korea's young people's time, robbing society of other contributions they could be making.
3. It makes Korea at hyper-competitive! Hurr durr.
4. It are make the advantage to the wealthy, who can afford to send their kids to private schools.
5. Its because credential society, man! Eberybody's just want the statuses and the prestiges!
6. They don't want to be happy! Just to make their mom get all teh bragging rights.
7. Korean moms is psycho, man. My kid Jaehee? His mom? Let me tell you...

Yes, I'm making fun of these memes. Not because they aren't partially true, but because they're been bled right to death on the blogosphere (my own blog included), and around every foreigner bar table in Korea.

Koreans know the system isn't perfect: even the President is talking about how we need to stop discriminating against non-college graduates. Success is too narrowly defined here. Everybody agrees that it should become socially acceptable to be a plumber or a welder or a mason or a sushi chef...

But for now, when people say that, what they mean is it should totally be OK for somebody else's kid to be a welder or a mason or a sushi chef. My own kid? Well, he has lots of options, too: a doctor from SNU... or a lawyer from SNU... or a doctor from Korea University. Or a lawyer from Korea U. Or a doctor from Yonsei University. Or a lawyer from Yonsei. As you can see, the possibilities are multivariate!

And that seems to be where we're stuck right now.

Further reading: (Korea Herald series on "Credential Society") -Education-elitism  -Need for equal opportunities. -Privatize universities? -I honestly found these essays dissatisfying, but they'll familiarize you with the "credentialism" territory.

What's the Sunneung's role in this? (Warning: broad brushes ahead. I'm not an idiot, you're not an idiot, your mileage may vary, and all the usual qualifiers here. Reread paragraph five. Duh.)

Well, The Joshing Gnome, one of my favorite no-longer-publishing bloggers, wrote this a while ago about the tests.

Here are the most relevant paragraphs:
The Korean preoccupation with testing to me seems to serve one function first and foremost, before even its stated function of enabling meritocracy. The test serves as a (theoretically) objective measuring stick by which people can gauge one another’s worth. The system must necessarily be open.... Korean students spend the bulk of their educational career through high school studying for the suneung. The test is designed in such a way that its fairness is as unquestionable as possible. Needless to say that expensive private lessons are necessary to make top scores on the exam, although there is the potential for anyone, even the poorest student, to perform as well as their talent and studies permit them. Thus the exam is accepted as ‘fair’ on some level by the bulk of society. 
Multiple choice exams (though it's not all multiple choice now, is it?) have this going for them: you can run it through a scantron and no human needs to make a judgement call (which is then open to being disputed or questioned) at any point. That makes it "fair" insofar as it can be objectively proven that X correct answers is better than X correct answers minus one. And if everybody takes the test, and if everybody agrees on its importance and fairness, we can use it to rank people from highest to lowest.

(Side note: the multiple choice exam I took this spring for my MacroEconomics course has left me assured that a multiple choice question can be as hard as, even harder than, an essay question. Y'all who think multiple choice is necessarily only memorization have simply never come across a really devious multiple-choice question artist. Some multiple choice exams are purely memorizing... but they certainly don't have to be.)

More Joshing Gnome:
After the suneung is over the grades come out. ...the vast majority of students score what they expected to score. These scores determine what universities the students will be accepted to, which determines much of the rest of their lives. Most of these students, even those who are disappointed with their scores, will admit that they are primarily to blame for their scores. They didn’t study enough, or well enough, or the right things. Maybe they’ll blame their family’s financial circumstances to a certain degree, but there will always be some fishing village boy with a widowed mother who ends up at Seoul National because of his outstanding suneung score to prove that the test is not the problem, you are.
For the most part, working harder will result in a better score, and greater raw intelligence, amplified by more hard work, will result in a better score: the students going to Seoul National University are many of the smartest kids in Korea. I used to forget that during my mad rants. Some intelligences are harder to measure with a scantron than others, yes; some kids fall through the cracks (I probably would have)... but the scantron does measure intelligence plus diligence, and those who score well do deserve to go to a good university. Meanwhile, universities are adjusting their admission and recruiting criteria to reflect the fact tests aren't the only way to measure talent.
Yet the test sticks around, and others like it: the Korean Bar Exam, the Korean Civil Service Exam, and Public School Teacher Exam are other tests that feature incredibly low success rates, but continue to attract staggering numbers of applicants. They're once-a-year tests and people dedicate entire years of their lives studying for them, only to once again not be the one in forty-five, or sixty-five, or ninety, who passes.

So why haven't these tests been abolished? Couldn't we just do that?

Korea has a very long tradition of Very Important Tests that might determine your entire future, but I'm not accepting sheer inertia for why they keep them around. Not in a country that has totally, cataclysmically reinvented itself about five times since 1890. Not in the country where people donated ten tons of personal possessions made of gold, in two fucking days, to help pay down its IMF debt. Not in the country that butted its way into the world's top fifteen economies after being a third world shithole as recently as 1960. If this country, with these people, decided they'd had enough of the tests, buddy, they'd be gone. I really believe that. So why are people keeping them around?

They must serve a purpose.

Here's my theory as to that purpose:

The tests are part of the system that enables Korean society to be rigidly hierarchical, yet egalitarian, at the same time. And it's important to be both in South Korea - Korea's hierarchical: from verb endings to drinking culture, from the first five questions people ask when they meet someone, to who pays for lunch, to who lights their cigarette first at the table, to the brands of handbag, shoe, and phone you have, from top to bottom Korean life is cluttered with big and small negotiations for, and deferences to, status.

Yet because (South) Korea's a democracy now, it must have equal opportunities (or at least the appearance of equal opportunities) for people to determine their own place on the ladder of who pulls rank on whom. And if people get locked into an icky rung of society, the fact it's rigid, yet also egalitarian, means that people will allow the system to perpetuate, hoping on the off-chance that their kid will make good, and swing the upward mobility they themselves never managed, and get pegged in a rigid high circle, rather than a rigid low circle (at which point the parents' status improves by association). Without at least the illusion of upward mobility, without that teasing hope that their kid just might do well enough on the sunneung to qualify for SNU's Law School, there'd be another revolution. WITH the hope their kid will be the one who games the system, people are willing to tolerate the system.

The Korean, of Ask A Korean! writes about the sheer viciousness of competitive society in Korea -- the ruthless dogfight for success. But that success becomes harder to measure if there aren't absolute, universally recognized signifiers of success, and the test helps to set those benchmarks of status.

A ferrari is better than a porsche, which is better than a mercedes, which is better than a BMW, which is better than an Equus, which is better than a Chairman, which is better than an Audi, which is better than a KIA. Ask any Korean to name Korea's top three universities. Or top ten. Or seven best jobs. Or seven best restaurant chains. Ask ten Canadians, "What's a better job? Dental hygienist or flight attendant?" and you might get six of one, four of the other. Ask ten Koreans, you'll find a lot less variation. "What's a better job? Electrician or bank teller?"

If there is debate about what comes above and below what else, it becomes harder to flaunt my success. Or to brag about my kid's success, and lord my kids' success over my friends.

How bad is this jockeying for status? Did you know some Korean companies have been asking for applicants parents' jobs, to get a better grip of how to rank the person against other applicants? (Or perhaps to open the door for further nepotism and cronyism?)

Doctor, Lawyer, Professor, Diplomat.
are better than
Civil Servant, Public School Teacher, Chaebol employee, perhaps banker, Business owner
are better than
Medium or small sized company employee, small business owner
are better than
you get the picture...

These tests, and the status conferred by holding elite jobs that can only be procured through these impossibly hard tests, helps strengthen the matrix of status in which everyone fits somewhere.

But the genius of these tests is this:

because they're tests, anybody can take them, and anybody could be the one who passes. We don't talk about that a lot in the expat bars, but that's good.

The wealthy have more opportunity to take a year off and just study, but if you can find me a society where the wealthy don't have an advantage, I'll eat my hat. The test comes as close as you can get to eliminating the advantage the wealthy have in every other area, because even Chaebol Jr. has to take the test, sitting next to a Hayseed... or a Riceseed, I guess, from the rice paddy in Buttfuck Jeollado. And Riceseed might even beat out Chaebol Jr. -- the test is probably the only arena where those two are ever even remotely on a level playing field.

Chaebol Jr. could get streamlined into a sweet Chaebol gig, while young Riceseed's school, family, and connections would find him cut, but there's still prestige and honor to be had, if he can kick ass on a test.

(image source) No space on here for "do you know who my father is?"

If civil servant positions were chosen by interview and reference, I fear hiring practices would start resembling other sectors - 4:1 men to women being hired. But women are passing that test in equal, or higher numbers, than men. By sheer force of numbers, eventually that's going to change things in this country. Same with entry-level positions at law firms, where the bar exam, being gender-blind, gives women a fighting chance, and women are vastly outnumbering men on public school teaching jobs, which are nearly impossible to lose once you have one. Becoming a civil servant or public school teacher is one of the only careers a woman can have, where maternity leave is actually generous in Korea. And those jobs are highly respected in society. So if the Chaebol's still only hiring well-connected, handsome (did I mention the mandatory photo on job applications yet?) men who went to prestigious schools... to the study room!

The test ain't easy... but it creates a meritocracy, or at least the illusion of upward mobility, that there's a corner of Korean society where the rich and privileged can't change the rules to suit themselves and their heirs (at least not completely).

And that matters.

So the hierarchy stays in place, enabled by the supposed egalitarianism of the test system, so that everyone knows the rules to the system, so that Korean moms can compare everybody more easily, and so that even if I didn't achieve that upward mobility myself... I can dream that my kid might, and then I get to lord it over everybody in my sewing/screen golf circle. But I can only use those bragging privileges if the rigid hierarchy is in place, so they can't pull the rug on me by saying, "yeah, it's nice that your kid's an office drone in a world-class company... but have you seen the beautiful cabinets my son builds? I bet your son couldn't do that."

This is my hypothesis for now... it's untested, and in large part anecdotal - armchair anthropology at (its) best... so I'm looking forward to reading what people have to say in response to it. Tell me I'm wrong, but give me reasons I can think about.


Erik said...

I'm not Korean, I didn't go to school in Korea and I didn't take the Korean university entrance exam. But I can't help wondering if, perhaps, just maybe, part of the problem is the way in which most students go about studying for the test. It seems to me like a blunt-force approach of putting in as many study hours as possible, rather than trying methods that might be more efficient. Any thoughts? I'd love to hear from Korean peers who studied really super hard for the test and those who found an alternative way.

Eugene said...

Japan has this type of test too, and all the signifiers of hierarchy (as in language, who eats first, etc), but there is a distinct difference between the two societies.

I get the sense that the 30+ person who is an assistant manager at a McDonald's is mocked in Korea. People won't openly say it to his face that he's a failure in life, but they will think so.

In Japan though, I get the sense that while few would want to do that particular job themselves, they don't see the manager as beneath them, and would still give him equal respect that they would give any other person. Basically what I am saying is that there is less of a stigma surrounding one's career. If you clean up the street, you're providing a valuable service to the community... you're not a failure at life because you clean the street because you didn't get into Honda or Sony.

Does this mean that I think Japan is better? No, because if I did, I would still be there. But, I do think that this itself is a function of time. Japan too was completely devastated and pulled itself up from its bootsraps in more or less 1 or 2 generations, and before WWII they were among the world's leading economies and had a middle class.

What I mean is the middle class has been around for a lot longer in Japan, and that's what's key here. With enough time, I think Korea will change to put less emphasis on status and wealth... but how much time is uncertain.

chiam said...

I've actually been ordered (by a female director, in fact) to change test scores so that more males could be hired at the company I worked for. I'm not sure how egalitarian they really are.

Chris in South Korea said...

I'm surprised you didn't mention the Korean's recent - and excellent - post offering a translation of a 1/7 scale of the aforementioned test.

The test ain't easy... but it creates a meritocracy, or at least the illusion of upward mobility, that there's a corner of Korean society where the rich and privileged can't change the rules to suit themselves and their heirs (at least not completely).

Simply put, they don't have to change the test. They already have control of every other aspect of life in this country - the employment, the housing, the banks, and the managers. Getting a perfect score on the suneung is certainly an achievement, but it's far from a guarantee of a job, a career, or even finding a spouse.

Perhaps another reason the test survives with only minor protests is because it's what they're used to. The Joseon dynasty had tough civil servant tests, which they took from the Chinese.

The country HAS "totally, cataclysmically reinvented itself about five times since 1890" - which happened because a majority of people struggled over a long period of time towards a specific goal.

Get rid of the suneung - and then what? Between inertia, perceived fairness by the majority, and the history of test-taking, it isn't going anywhere.

Roboseyo said...

I'm not only talking about the suneung -- the bar exam and civil service exam are also really big deals, and even more obviously gateways to prestige.

Anonymous said...

The Korean system aims to make students a master of every subject.

The American or "Western" system, while badly flawed in many ways, aims to find out the one or two subjects a student can excel at, and then allows them to specialize starting at the high school level via electives.

I'll take the latter any day of the week. I know for certain that getting to focus on "soft" things like history and English rather than math and science in high school allowed me to do pretty well in college and grad. school.

Then again, I had parents who really respected teachers and education in general (something America sorely lacks these days).

"It seems to me like a blunt-force approach of putting in as many study hours as possible, rather than trying methods that might be more efficient."

I'd agree with this. There's working hard and there's working smart.

Chris in South Korea said...

The staggeringly low success rates are manipulable (able to be manipulated?) at any time by simply changing the passing score - or by making the test easier. They did that on the suneung to get MORE perfect scores because the last test was perceived as 'too hard'.

What I've seen from working with adults - especially those in their 30's and 40's - is that the test STILL haunts them. It affects them less and less as their career moves forward, but mention it to them. I dare you. The fear in their eyes, and perhaps the disappointment their parents had all comes back to them. Even when asking them if they've moved on from it, some are hesitant to say yes. It's as though as ghost of suneung past continues to haunt them.

I didn't ace my SAT or ACT (although my scores were high enough to get into all the colleges I applied to, and a full-tuition scholarship at the college I eventually chose), and those tests are ancient history. They don't control my destiny any more, and they haven't caused any long-term psychological issues. The suneung does.

JLR said...

Interesting post, definitely made me think. One nitpick: these tests don't actually measure intelligence. I know I'm just picking on word choice, and I wouldn't have mentioned except I know people who, although they clearly have above-average intelligence, they don't do well on standardized tests, and they feel like they aren't as intelligence as others who did better than them on standardized tests.

And also because here in the states, I still come across men, 10 or 20 years after high school, STILL citing their SAT scores as proof of their intelligence. Needless to say, that type doesn't have much else going on in their lives to evidence intelligence.

Anyway, you continue to be one of the smartest and most interesting blogs I read these days. Thanks for the good reading!


p.s. I got an error message the first time I tried to post this comment--sorry if I wind up commenting twice.

Roboseyo said...

It depends, Chris, on how you define success. If success is a particular score, that can be manipulated; however, I know someone who took the teacher's exam, and I'm pretty sure the bar and civil servant exams are like this too: it doesn't really matter what your score was, because a success means you get the job, and they only pass the number of openings they have for that year. If openings are scarce, you might get a ratio of 120 applicants per available position in some regions.

The year my friend took it, a handful of people with the top few percent scores got to the second round, which was a round of interviews and (I think) another test.

For the Sunneung, it doesn't really matter if the test was harder or easier this year, because it was harder or easier for all the other students, too: I still need to get a high enough score to be in the top (whatever number SNU admits to their freshman class), whether that top percentile averaged 94%. or 78% on the test itself.

Prospective employers don't ask "What was your sunneung score" - they ask "which university," kind of like nobody really gives a damn what your SAT score was. I scored in a very high percentile on the ACT test (I applied to a couple of American colleges), but have never once put that on my resume.

Roboseyo said...

Dear JLR:

I'm sorry, but I disagree with you.

They DO measure intelligence... but as is discussed at length among expat teachers, they are much better at measuring some kinds of intelligence than others, and they fail to accurately measure other kinds of intelligence.

But the students who do well on these tests ARE smart/intelligent. Don't take that away from those who DO have the kind of intelligence that is well-measured on standardized tests. That other kids are ALSO intelligent, doesn't diminish that.

AgentS said...

Maybe you can answer this question for me, Robo.
Why is the Sunneung only given once per year, when most other countries' version of the test (SAT, ACT, etc) are given multiple times a year. What is the reasoning behind once-a-year exams?

Roboseyo said...


Don't quote me on this, but for the sunneung...

1. why not? The GRE only happens once or twice a year.

2. only one class of high school students graduate per year, so they only get the test one time.

3. from what I've seen about Korean test-writing culture (for example, the TOEIC test) the same group of people would sign up for it as often as they ran it... (I knew some women who wanted to be flight attendants... and airline companies would make a rule that if you applied, you couldn't apply again for six months, so that they didn't just keep being overwhelmed by an ocean of the same faces every time they made a call for applicants) so running the test more often would lead to no decrease in the cost or difficulty of administering it fairly... and running the test more often would just open up MORE opportunities for breaches in the test's hyper-tight security (the people who write the test questions have to literally go into seclusion between completing the questions and the administering of the test... yet STILL there's a cheating scandal almost every year.)

4. it would make things really confusing for university recruiters to have numerous copies of test results attached to applications -- especially when people start saying "I got a higher score in the spring test than the winter one, so please ignore my most recent score"

5. (for all the tests) Honestly... as a disincentive. If my test score is less than I expected, I have to seriously think about eating an entire year of my life in order to study, take the test again, and try to up my score. That's not THAT much to lose, given what I gain if I get the prestigious job. If I can re-take it after six months, or again next season, I'm more likely to decide to go for it... which would lead to even MORE test-writers taking a flier on it, figuring three or six months isn't TOO much to lose...rather than deciding to give up and look for a job in another sector, or choose a trade, or go to the lower-ranked university.

That's not an official explanation, so don't quote me on that.

Anonymous said...

1. why not? The GRE only happens once or twice a year.

Yes. The system under which GRE test-takers could take the test on computer at a date and testing center of their choice has been discontinued.

2. only one class of high school students graduate per year, so they only get the test one time.

In this regard, South Korea has differentiated itself from its cohort of OECD countries, all the rest of which allow high-school students to graduate year-round on a rolling basis.

4. it would make things really confusing for university recruiters to have numerous copies of test results attached to applications -- especially when people start saying "I got a higher score in the spring test than the winter one, so please ignore my most recent score"

America has suffered this problem for ages. I can't count how many of my friends have had their college/law school/etc applications flat-out rejected because admissions officers were unable to devote requisite amounts of time to calculating average scores. Taking the SAT or the LSAT even twice can seriously jeopardize, if not completely scupper, an applicant's chances. Let's hope that South Korea doesn't fall into the same trap in which America seems irrevocably stuck.

Anonymous said...

"Taking the SAT or the LSAT even twice can seriously jeopardize, if not completely scupper, an applicant's chances."

Wut? Did something change in the past ten years? Because I know for a fact that the test-taker "chooses" which scores he or she wants to send in with his or her application.

I also remember taking the GRE for a first time and thinking I'd done poorly, so when I handed in the papers I checked a box stating "DO NOT SEND TO COLLEGE/UNIVERSITIES" (I got to send my scores on for free to four schools, beyond that you had to pay extra).

It's been a while, but I remember the SAT being the same way in America -- you only send the score/s that you want. Colleges and unis never "average" them, they only get to see your best ones.

They _do_ know how many times you've taken the SAT/GRE/LSAT/GMAT, but they only see the scores that the test-taker wants them to see.

Unless things have changed. I'm not that old. :)

Bonnie said...

Erm, I believe horace-hollingsworth's whole post was sarcastic. Because you CAN take the GRE pretty much any day you want...just not in Korea or China because of various cheating scandals that keep popping up.

Roboseyo said...

Well... just shows what happens when you ask a Canadian to compare the Korean and the American education systems. While we're at it, I'm off to ask my Ugandan friend for his thoughts on the best Belgian waffles in Korea.

JLR said...

I guess I should clarify a bit. I have no doubt that high scores correlate with higher intelligence. I would be completely and totally shocked if I ever came across evidence to the contrary. What I meant was that they are not *designed* to measure intelligence. That is not their function or purpose. They are *designed* to measure aptitude. Although I think one can safely assume that the higher your intelligence level, the greater your likelihood of doing well on the test, that doesn't mean you can substitute these tests for, say, an IQ test. Treating them as equivalents is a little unfair to the people who are quite intelligent but for whatever reason don't do well on standardized tests.

I think maybe you and I disagree on your use of the word "measure." I'm looking at it from the point of view of the test designer, not the person who analyzes test results after the fact who notices that higher test scores usually come from test takers with higher intelligence. You wouldn't find a scientist saying, "we've noticed that people who have abnormal results on an EKG almost always come from people who have high cholesterol, therefore the EKG measures cholesterol."

That's all I meant. I realize I'm splitting hairs here, but those particular hairs have a mighty big effect on some people.

T.K. (Ask a Korean!) said...

I will amplify one of the points made in the OP:

수능 is particularly important in Korea because it is, at least ostensibly, fair. Korea is a country which (1) is willing to go greater lengths on education than nearly any country in the world, (2) college credentials play a huge role in shaping the remainder of your life, and (3) fuzzy rules can always be co-opted toward the rich and powerful.

Separately, wetcasements said: "The Korean system aims to make students a master of every subject. The American or "Western" system, while badly flawed in many ways, aims to find out the one or two subjects a student can excel at, and then allows them to specialize starting at the high school level via electives. I'll take the latter any day of the week."

I respectfully disagree. If one cared about the function of education in a society, it has to be the former. I am planning to extrapolate on an upcoming post. Just as soon as I finish this horrendous week billing 15+ hours a day every day...

Jake the F2 said...

One of the largest social problems is not the test or testing in an of itself. It's that people feel to driven to the extreme to categorize and outrank one another. Yes, this type of fierce competition and hurl an economy forward and transform a person's social status in one generation, but whenever I see two Korean mothers get into a pissing contest about their kid's grades or their husband's jobs, or their latest vacation abroad, a single thought comes to my pea-sized expat brain: "Damn, I hope my kids don't end up like that."

For many people here, success is merely something more they can rub in their neighbors face, which considering the mentality of national unity seems contradictory and ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

"If one cared about the function of education in a society, it has to be the former."

As somebody who has been teaching for about a decade, I can assure you that beating square pegs into round holes does society no good.

I'm sure your position is more nuanced than that, but there's a reason many a guffaw was raised over the rhetorical question of "Where is the Korean Steve Jobs?"

That sort of outside-the-box, independent critical thinking is definitely a weakness in the Korean educational system.

(Even while I'm the first to admit the Western system has huge problems for a whole other set of reasons.)

T.K. (Ask a Korean!) said...

As a descendant of three generations of educators (such that family dinner conversations revolved around classic Confucian educational philosophy and John Dewey,) I disagree. But I will elaborate my point further in my upcoming post.

As to Steve Jobs, there are hundreds of Steve Jobs in Korea already. The true strength of Steve Jobs was not that he was creative (although he certainly was,) but that he was an American. I explained in this post: http://askakorean.blogspot.com/2011/10/can-korea-be-truly-creative-it-already.html

Anonymous said...

Um, OK.

Is this another of those moments where you claim you learned Chinese solely by memorizing a dictionary, then change your story later?

Roboseyo said...

For things the Korean has said in other discussions, on other topics, kindly take him to task on those other discussion forums, wet casements. Old grudges tend to derail discussions and chase away new commenters.

Thanks very much.


T.K. (Ask a Korean!) said...

Just for the record, I never once said I learned Chinese solely by memorizing the dictionary. But I did say that I learned Chinese primarily by memorizing the dictionary -- which is true.

I gave a polite response pertinent to the topic at hand, and you respond with a non sequitur attack. For a commenter who usually gives good, thoughtful opinions, it is disappointing to see such a reaction.

Roboseyo said...

Hey Rob, I know I'm late to this but I have some disagreements with your piece.

(1) You point out that the test is seen as "fair" because a kid from the boonies can ace the test and get into SKY. Well, the question then is: how often do students from the boonies of Korea get into SKY? If the answer is "not too many," then academic researchers would call the kid who aced the Sunneung and got into SKY an "outlier."

It's pretty common knowledge that the Seoulite kids who get into SKY tend to be from the richer parts of Seoul (Gangnam, etc.). This is basically because of class privilege, etc. The same is true for, say, the SAT in the US - your class is a very good predictor of your SAT score and subsequent ability to get into a good college.

Since SKY admission seems to be dependent to some extent on class background, which in turn means Suneung results are also dependent on class background, I have a strong distrust of the ability of Suneung to be some kind of "great equalizer."

Remember, also, that "meritocratic" is not the same as "fair." Meritocracy is simply giving rewards to those who have the skills, and since the more privileged have more resources to gain skills, etc., meritocracy will tend to favor the more privileged.

Roboseyo said...

I think I've used enough weasel words -- "the illusion of meritocracy" "the appearance of egalitarianism" and so forth, that you point, a very valid one, is accounted for in the article, and I DO mention that wealth allows someone the luxury of taking a year off to try and improve their sunneung score: the privileged class DOES have advantages even here... but the illusion that it's egalitarian, is enough that people consent to the system instead of demanding it change.