Sunday, November 21, 2010

The English Section of the 수능

The "수능" or "수학능혁시험" is the test Korean high school students must take before they graduate. Last week it was administered across the nation. Typically, lower grades cheer on for their seniors and give them little goodies to help them pass. If you want to see a nice photo-essay of the event then follow this link. Note that this test is very important and not just something they can "Christmas Tree" in the answers and then figure out what to do with their lives. As shown here:
While 수능 doesn’t determine absolutely everything about one’s future academic and professional career, it does determine a whole lot more than the SAT. A high score on the 수능 is the primary admissions requirements to get into one of the SKY universities (Korea’s answer to an Ivy league school or the Big Three).

I don't work at the high school level and so have no real direct relationship to this test and what goes on. However, the other day JH sent me a pdf file of the English section of this test. I remember he showed it to me last year, although it was a print out. This post will be meant to share with you parts of the English section and my critique of it.

At first there are mostly questions with Korean and English.
Yes, I don't know Korean well enough, so I can't tell you what is being asked. My judgment is based upon the overall test and that it looks really hard. Some questions even I don't know what they are getting at. Of course I have used and studied English in a different way from a Korean high school student. It is well known that young Korean people study for this test practically their whole young adult life. They know how to find the answer and crack the test's code.

But still there are 9 pages of this and 50 questions to get through. Here is what one of the pages looks like:
It's straight black and white with a few pictures and not much room for imagination. However, I don't recall the SAT I took back in high school was any more vibrant than this.

Let's look at one of the questions:
Without checking the answer sheet, which I have here, I think the answer could be either #5 or #1. The actual is #1. Bravo! What did you think? Or was this actually easy?

The thing is I teach English to elementary students and often wonder where it is all leading up to. Teaching my kids, "I like apples" and showing them different fruits, I stop and think "why?" Is it to get them to be comfortable and familiar with English or teach them sentence structure and a list of vocabulary? The thing is I have been told to teach in a very active and outgoing way. As I have said before my coteachers basically want me to perform like a clown in the class making English a form of entertainment. I am fine with getting away from the typical rote-memorization that is found here, but I don't really have the energy to bounce off the walls with every class and on every day. However, I can't help but feel perplexed that this "Clown English" leads them to this really strict high school SAT test.

How does this test really measure their English skills? The test does include the different levels, such as reading and listening. So I guess they get to use all of that. Of course what test could there be based upon non-memorization preparation.

Even the American SAT requires some preparation that isn't very exciting. The "Critical Reading section is laid out like this:

The Critical Reading (formerly Verbal) section of the SAT is made up of three scored sections: two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section, with varying types of questions, including sentence completions and questions about short and long reading passages. Critical Reading sections normally begin with 5 to 8 sentence completion questions; the remainder of the questions are focused on the reading passages. Sentence completions generally test the student's vocabulary and understanding of sentence structure and organization by requiring the student to select one or two words that best complete a given sentence.
Oh, that is bringing back memories. As you can see, from the following picture, the American SAT version isn't that much different in style.
Another Korean example:
The answer is...#5.
Do you think this question was hard? Do you think it would be hard for a Korean high school student? Let's not forget they are taking the test all day along with other subjects such as Korean and Science, and that they have likely been studying all night for the past year. I never really enjoyed taking these types of test and knowing that my score determined a certain future. I should be grateful, because whatever score I got on my SAT it never got in the way of my life. I went to college, graduated and have since been doing well. Unfortunately, Korean people live in a world where their test score determines whether or not they will get into the top 3 Universities, which means whether or not they will get hired by the top companies (LG, Samsung, Hyundai) and to some who they can marry.  

I have talked to JH about this and how someone's test score shouldn't be how the world judges them. Instead, it should be about their character and life experience. Of course, I said taking tests and measuring your skills can come along with that, but to base one's qualities just on a score is harsh. He agreed with my reasoning but said, "This is Korea. We have to do like this." Why? Essentially he brought it down to that Korea is a small country without a lot of competition and everyone wants to do better than the other person. He said, "If I see someone else study 3 hours, then I will study 4." So I said, "Then the person behind you will study 5 and so on..." I tried to tell him that Korea being a small country and crowded isn't going to change, but that the way people function and accept each other can change. I told him there are crowded parts of America, like New York and LA, where there is a lot of competition. But to get ahead people usually work hard and pull themselves up through networking and starting their own businesses..etc. 

The conversation huffed out as I was getting a big headache. I wasn't trying to change JH's mind but help him see how I see it all. Of course, he helped me how he sees it. 

To me this English section of the Korean SAT test points to a critical conversation that many expats have with each other about Korean society. Over time things have been changing little by little here. I don't expect Korea to suddenly do a 180 flip and look like the West. But I can't help but think that someday the young folks will rebel or break out of the mold and make their own path. Maybe that is already happening, but from underground or from the inside-out. 

All in all, my views are strictly that of someone with surface knowledge of this all. I wanted to share the English version of the test so those who teach English here can kind of see what it amounts to. 

What are your thoughts on all this and by all means feel free to correct me.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that it is sad and stressful for the 수능 to hold so much importance in a person's life. But at the same time, I'm not sure what other way there is when there are so many people who have such high aspirations.

    I know many Koreans who are living the successful entrepreneurial life that you mentioned- my husband being one of them. He did okay on the 수능 after attending high school in the countryside, went to a middle of the pack university, and made his own way in the world using his head and ability to schmooze. Most of the people in our social circle are in similar positions.

    The problem is this lifestyle isn't considered to be "elite" which is the goal for a large percentage of parents.

    As for the difficulty of the 수능, it actually isn't *that* hard for dedicated students. I have a lot of experience teaching 수능 level listening to middle schoolers, and the questions are manageable for most of them.

    The good thing is the questions are formulaic with different styles of questions even being in almost the exact same order on every test. The reading portion is a bit more difficult, but even still, the style of questions are the same year after year.

    There are hundreds and hundreds of 모의고사 to help students prepare quite effectively. I have had quite a few middle school students who can score perfectly on the listening portion and miss only one or two on the reading section.

    The TEPS exam used for entrance in Seoul National University is much, much more difficult than 수능.

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