A Day of Reckoning – 'Suneung' (수능)
As I write, across Korea thousands of third year high school students, known as ‘go-sam’ (고삼), will be religiously counting down the days. Some began the count at ‘D Day minus 365,’ others, more traditionally, began at ‘D Day minus 100.’ Today, is ‘D Day minus 21.’ And within the space in which I have written this post, in exactly three weeks time, the futures of thousands of teenagers will have been significantly determined.
‘D Day’ itself will present about 600.000 of the nation’s ‘go-sam’ students, with one of, if not the most, important experiences of their lives and certainly their most important exam. The suneung (수능) or CSAT (College Scholastic Ability Test) is the Korean, standardized test taken by all final year high school students and although some alternatives are now offered, and more are supposedly on the way, for most students it is the sole qualification required for entry into Korean universities.
Of all the standardized tests globally, the suneung is seen as one of the most rigorous. The path towards that moment of academic reckoning begins in elementary school and every step in the development of academic ability from infant study onwards, is a preparation for the suneung.
Taken on the second or third Thursday in November, the suneung temporarily transforms the face of Korea and on the day there is a sense that the entire nation is backing the candidates. The transformations are a reflection of the pivotal role education plays in society and despite the professed importance other nations give to ‘education,’ in most, only a national catastrophe or war would be sufficient to suspend capitalism or national defence. In Korea education stops everything, back in Scumland UK, it stops nothing and I can remember sitting the equivalent of the suneung exam to the accompaniment of persistent rifle fire from the nearby military base.
The exams last one day and are divided into a number of periods during which exams are taken in subjects such as: maths, social studies, English, sciences, vocational studies and foreign languages. The exams are largely multi choice. To guarantee candidates arrive in school armed with equipment, entry permits, a ‘fighting spirit’ and ready to do their best, a range of national procedures and contingencies come into effect:
♦All other students begin school after 9.am.
♦To help ensure transport system work to maximum efficiency, many businesses begin work at 10am. This includes the Stock Exchange! Yes, there’s only one Stock Exchange, it’s in Seoul and probably nowhere near a school, but it’s the thought that counts. For a few moments the success of students is of more importance than the economy.
♦During the periods when listening test are being conducted, planes cannot land at airports and those waiting to land have to circle above 10.000 feet. Even air-force movements are curtailed, within reason, to ensure silence at the appropriate times.
♦Korea Electric Power Corps places 4000 workers on standby in the event of power failures and each examination center, of which there are about a 1000, is sent a technician to monitor power supplies and await any emergency.
♦Police assist on the roads approaching schools and are also on hand to transport students who’ve encountered problems. Nerves thwart the plans of the best intentioned candidates.
♦Since 1993, there has been no evidence of suneung questions being leaked. In the days immediately prior to D-Day, specially selected professors are imprisoned in a hotel, denied any form of contact with the outside world, the hotel windows blacked out, and equipped with a library of resources, they formulate the exam questions. No doubt the hotel is 5 star, but nonetheless, they are kept in solitary confinement until the exams are officially over.
♦Schools are also supplied detectors with which to scan students for devices, hand-phones etc, which could be used to cheat.
♦Female teachers in high schools on the day of Suneung are not allowed to wear high heeled shoes or perfume.
Beyond official and bureaucratic procedures adopted to ensure both fairness and a conducive examination atmosphere, a host of other practices have developed aimed to improve the chances of success. Eating anything sticky on or before ‘D Day’ is believed to enhance ones luck. Sticky things cling to the wall and do not fall and so by chewing on toffee (엿), or sticky rice cake (찰떡), it is hoped you grades will hold fast and not slip into the gutter. Conversely, eating anything slimy, such as seaweed soup (미역 국) might incur bad luck and see your chances for the university of your choice slipping away. At the same time, one must avoided uttering any word expressing failure, falling, dropping, sinking, sliding or slipping. The reason obvious; if it’s muttered, it might happen. Parents and relatives will travel to mountain temples to say prayers and leave slips of paper on which are written the names of loved candidates, or they will attend special services in churches where small Bibles can be purchased in which you stick a photo of your son or daughter, all in the hope of currying divine favour. I doubt many believe success or failure is determined by the consistency of ones food, use of language or even prayer but anything which can be used to bolster the spirit is a valid psychological weapon in the quest for exam success and highlights the desperate measure to which the importance of exam success drives individuals.
On D-Day, parents will crowd around school gates, some will pray and other will hold their Buddhist bracelets in reverent anticipation. Candidates are often greeted by 1st and 2nd grade students as they arrive. Colourful banners wishing students good luck are waved and sometimes juniors will perform the full bow at the feet of those about to be tested. It is also common for juniors to rally the spirits of their stressed seniors by singing rousing songs before the exams commence. My last high school had almost 2000 students and it raised the hackles to hear 1200 boys singing in unison from all the classrooms under the 3rd floor, where the suneung candidates waited for their exams to commence.
And when the exams finish, all the text books and notebooks used by the students throughout the year are unceremoniously tossed from the go-sam windows, often on the 3rd floor. Of course, the pressure isn’t off as from 6pm onwards, newspapers can publish exam questions and the agonizing process of self assessment begins until the results are finally released. And of course, as with every exam in Korea, only those with perfect scores are allowed to feel any satisfaction and even this is down played.
Undoubtedly, Korea has one of the best educated populations globally and though we might want to qualify the nature of that ‘education,’ we cannot dispute their success in terms of literacy and the sciences. Objective subjects and languages are much easier to assess. When it comes to the arts and subjective thinking, Korea has problems but however flawed or misguided we might perceive the Korean education system, it has facets worthy of admiration and parts perhaps worthy of emulation. Coming from Scumland UK, where dumbing-down is fashionable, bone-idleness excused, and the fruits of study and erudition watered down into a melee where belly dancing becomes an academic pursuit which has parity with mathematics or physics, it is refreshing to work in a culture where education has too much significance rather than little at all.
To all 2010 go-sam (고삼) students about to face the suneung, ‘fighting’ (화팅!)
© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.