SEOUL, May 10, 2013—Recently I sent emails to a few schools in Seoul that I wanted to visit on behalf of ArborBridge, and last week I received one particularly distressing reply: “You may be coming to the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Too bad I’d already bought my ticket.
In truth, it hardly stands to reason that South Korea would be the wrong place to introduce ArborBridge’s approach to SAT test preparation. We have happy students around the world and a curriculum and online platform that delight students, tutors, and college counselors alike.
Moreover, Korea sends over 35,000 undergraduates to the United States every year, making it the third-largest source of foreign college students. The prestigious American universities—those that, for better or worse, tend to expect very high test scores—hold legendary status here. What could be wrong?
A lot, as it turns out.
Exactly What Happened Last Week in South Korea?
While hundreds of thousands of high schoolers around the world were taking the SAT this past Saturday morning, their Korean counterparts were still home sharpening their pencils. The SAT administration—for the entire country—was cancelled. Do not bubble in your name. Do not check your bags at the door. Do not even show up.
Understandably, the College Board is ultra-sensitive about test security. It recently instituted electronic photo ID checks to ensure that no one is takes the exam on anyone else’s behalf, and it guards the test questions fiercely. We wouldn’t want the questions leaking out, would we?
But that’s exactly what happened. The week before the exam, eight Korean hagwons—private study centers, which often offer SAT preparation and are often known as “cram schools”—were reportedly caught stealing and leaking May 4 test questions. Though it’s likely that only a handful of students were involved, the College Board, not knowing how widespread the attempted scam was, yanked all the tests.
Roughly 1,500 students were expected to take the exam, according to Time. This is the first time that a test sitting has been cancelled across an entire country.
The cancellation included both “open” test centers and “closed” test centers, which admit only to their own students.
CNN.com reports that the College Board issued a statement saying, “"This action is being taken in response to information provided to ETS -- the College Board's vendor for global test administration and security -- by the Supreme Prosecutors' Office regarding tutoring companies in the Republic of Korea that are alleged to have illegally obtained SAT and SAT Subject Test materials for their own commercial benefit.”
Nobody at the schools I have visited this week seems to be freaking out yet. Fortunately for the thousands of innocent bystanders, even the 11th graders have at least three more test sittings before early applications are due. The next SAT administration is June 4; some speculate that this sitting may too be cancelled in Korea, but the College Board has made no such announcement.
Hagwons and the Quest to be Number One
The scam is perhaps the inevitable result of an increasingly pressurized atmosphere surrounding standardized testing in Korea. Students burn the midnight oil at hagwons, sometimes studying for months to achieve gains of 20 or 30 points—or to reach for that elusive 2400. Students often commit their entire summer vacations to SAT prep.
Many hagwons are known for trying to “game” the test. They do not necessarily teach academic fundamentals, such as math and vocabulary, but rather try to anticipate specific test questions (often by compiling encyclopedic banks of previous test questions and discerning patterns that the test authors themselves might not even be aware of) and have students memorize answers. This is not unlike counting cards in blackjack. This is the length to which students will go in a culture where anything less than number-one is often considered shameful.
The temptation to commit massive fraud is, perhaps, not many steps removed from this unusual approach to test preparation.
Anyone who knows college admissions intimately knows that test theft is as pointless as it is dishonest. Admission to competitive universities depends on so much more than test scores. And it’s probably easier to study for the SAT honestly than it is to go to the trouble of stealing.
Hopefully students not involved in this plot who otherwise might have taken this pause to redouble their studying efforts in preparation for the June exam will instead take the moment to relax, reflect, and focus on those virtues that really matter for college. Those would include passion, creativity, curiosity, ethics, service, compassion, awareness, humor, and integrity; things that Korean students surely possess in spades but that appear on no standardized test that I've ever seen.
If that can happen, then something is definitely right in Korea.
Josh Stephens is ArborBridge’s Director of International Development. He can be reached at Josh@ArborBridge.com.