High Stakes Assessments in Action

For a Laugh, Can you Survive The South Korean Education System?

Found out by watching, Can You Pass One Of The Hardest South Korean Tests? 

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“A high-stakes test is any test used to make important decisions about students, educators, schools, or districts, most commonly for the purpose of accountability—i.e., the attempt by federal, state, or local government agencies and school administrators to ensure that students are enrolled in effective schools and being taught by effective teachers. In general, “high stakes” means that test scores are used to determine punishments (such as sanctions, penalties, funding reductions, negative publicity), accolades (awards, public celebration, positive publicity), advancement (grade promotion or graduation for students), or compensation (salary increases or bonuses for administrators and teachers).” (Edglossary)


Korean students are not strangers to high stakes assessments, and this is demonstrated by their international ranking in student achievement. 

According to the website, “PISA 2012 is the programme’s 5th survey. It assessed the competencies of 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics and science (with a focus on mathematics) in 65 countries and economies.”

To summarize the report, South Korean students consistently rank in the top ten when it comes to test scores for subjects such as math, science, and reading.

WENR, World Education New & Reviews suggests, “South Korea is widely perceived as having one of the best K-12 education systems in the world. A study by education firm Pearson, with data from the Economist Intelligence Unit, found South Korea to have the second-best education system in the world (after Finland)” (Education in South Korea).

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What are some Reasons for the International Ranking of South Korean Students?

I once asked a Korean co-worker why the Korean people and parents push their children so hard when it comes to academic achievement. I had good cause for asking this as I frequently had bright students sobbing in my class after receiving a score of 95% – 98% on their recent test. She explained to me that as Korea is such a small country, with very few natural resources, many Koreans see their intelligence as the greatest resource they possess. Therefore, every parent wants their child to get perfect scores, go to one of the prestigious universities, and get a good job at a big company.   

According to World Education News & Reviews, “Korean children spend 220 days a year in school versus 190 in Finland and 180 in the United States. By some measures, the average Korean child spends 13 hours a day studying after supplemental class time is factored in. According to a PISA criterion known as “study effectiveness,” South Korea ranks only 24th out of 30 developed nations. Children in Finland, the top ranked country in study effectiveness (and third ranked overall), spend significantly less time in school and in studying in general than is the case in Korea.”

I have witnessed this phenomenon firsthand as most of my students attend some type of educational establishment from 8-9am until anywhere from 8-11pm on any given day. Korean students often study and attend private academies on weekends as well.

It is therefore not a surprise that Korean children rank high internationally, as they spend significantly more time in the educational setting than children in other countries.

Teacher quality and effort are also high on the list of reasons why Korean students perform well on an international level. “Today, teaching is the most popular career choice among young South Koreans, due to a combination of high social status, job stability and high pay. Only two out of 32 countries surveyed by the OECD, for example, pay higher salaries to their lower secondary teachers than South Korea. The result is that just 5% of applicants are accepted into elementary school teacher training programs, and the teacher attrition rate is very low, only a little over 1% per year.  The proportion of all South Korean teachers that are fully certified and hold bachelors degrees is among the highest in the world.” NCEE

High Stakes Assessments in South Korea

Assessments are high-stakes when there are significant consequences tied to the performance of students, such as university admittance after taking the “SuNeung Sihum” (University Entrance Test). 

The day of the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT) is seen by South Korea as the most stressful day of the year as hundred of thousands of students sit for nine hours to complete it, vying with each other for spots in Korea’s top universities.

“In South Korea, the reality is most students have lived for this very day. They have put in so much time and effort, and the fact that everything is decided on this one day can place an immense amount of pressure on them,” a teacher from Paihwa Girl’s High School, who had come to cheer on his students, said.”  (Year of Hell)

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(View youtube video: SOUTH KOREA: Korea halts for ‘ticket to life’ exam)

Many South Korean students view their senior year in high school “the year of hell.” However, the pressure to study for these high stakes assessments begins in preschool and kindergarten. The educational culture of South Korea is one of high stakes testing and is linked to the country’s roots in Confucianism. Beginning in the 1st grade students must spend countless hours studying, and the end result is that they study for exams instead of studying to learn.

How much time is spent in testing? Korean students spend an average of 10-14 hours studying each day.  On 16 year old student, Hye-Min Park, when asked about her schedule said, “I get tired usually but I can forget about my hardships when I see my results, because they’re kind of good!”

Are teachers teaching to the test? Korea is internationally renowned for its extremely high-stakes testing. From my personal experience teaching there for 3 years the primary responsibilities of the teachers are to prepare students for the numerous exams they take every year. According to Sung Tae Jang various governmental efforts in South Korea “have sought to diversify and solidify standards for teacher accountability.” He also states, “Although some schools use student achievement to evaluate teachers’ capability in South Korea, a sufficient discussion about the effectiveness of teacher evaluation tied to student achievement is lacking in South Korea.”

Some Korean Schools are Rethinking the Test-driven Educational System, Should the U.S.?

For an excellent example of this resistance to the high stakes culture, we look to a school in the heart of Seoul.  Haja Production School, also know as “Seoul Youth Factory for Alternative Culture”, was founded 15 years ago to give young Koreans an “alternative educational space, where youth who dropped out of competitive mainstream schooling learn art and media production skills and develop a critical analysis of their society.”

One Haja student explained the choice to leave regular school by stating, our schools are “highly competitive… [we wonder] is this learning really for ourselves or just for going to a university? Even at a university, I don’t think many of us choose to study what we really want to study, we chose what will lead to a stable life afterwards. I came to Haja because I wanted an education [where I could learn] what I wanted to learn.” Instead of students and teachers being consumed by endless hours of test cramming, they can work together to prepare the students for diverse careers and community life. 

While their peers spend 12-14 hours a day in school or “cram schools” memorizing facts for the various high stakes exams, students at Haja are able to develop their 21st century skills of collaboration and critical thinking. “Since the Fukushima disaster, the school has focused on some of society’s profound challenges like climate change and increasing social isolation.” 

Perhaps the U.S. should pause rethink the current high stakes track it’s on. Do we really want to lose our children to the abyss that is “narrowly-defined definitions of success” where their  “critical thinking is sacrificed to the gods of standardization”? 

How are Students Handling Increasing Pressures to Perform in Korea’s High Stakes Assessment Culture?

According to an article in the New York Times, Se-Woong Koo, a product of the South Korean education system, believes that “The world may look to South Korea as a model for education — its students rank among the best on international education tests — but the system’s dark side casts a long shadow. Dominated by Tiger Moms, cram schools and highly authoritarian teachers, South Korean education produces ranks of overachieving students who pay a stiff price in health and happiness. The entire program amounts to child abuse. It should be reformed and restructured without delay” (Koo, S., 2014).

While not every student suffers under the Korean educational system, it is quite obvious to me from personal experience that students here are under tremendous amounts of pressure and strain. Korean children are given very little time for recreation or rest, and must continually operate in a brutally competitive system. Class test scores are usually public knowledge and those with low scores are shamed or held up as the “don’t be this student” example for others.

Do the intense expectations and high stakes assessments in South Korea produce high academic results? Yes, they do. However, they also produce low results in other areas. While they rank high internationally, South Korean students’ interest in school and satisfaction rate is low, in comparison to other OECD countries.

“More disturbingly, Statistics Korea and the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family last year reported that worry over career and academic performance is the main reason youths aged 13-19 contemplate suicide. According to the report, suicide was the biggest cause of death among people aged 15-24 in 2011.” (High performance, high pressure in South Korea’s education system, 2015).

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I’m not sure if the high international academic rankings are worth this much loss of happiness and life among Korean students.

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(View youtube video: Academic Pressure Pushing S. Korean Students To Suicide)

The interesting thing about Korean education, compared with that of the U.S., is that Korean parents have low involvement, other than monetarily providing for education. In the U.S. parent and community involvement is encouraged, while Korean parents are usually too busy to do anything other than pay the private academy bills and check report cards.

Teachers in Korea are under tremendous amounts of pressure. The problem is that they are often drowning in a sea of paperwork and administrative duties that classes rarely are anything other than a dispensation of facts for the students to memorize for the next test.

I believe the Korean government realizes there are issues with the education system, and they have undergone some policy changes to assist the situation. However, they cannot prevent parents from sending their children to a multitude of after school academies to help their child “get ahead” of everyone else.

With the student suicide rate so high, and the overall education related unhappiness and stress, I sincerely hope that at some point a balance is reached for the sake of the emotional and mental health of Korean children. 

Former Education Minister, Prof JuHo Lee said, “Test scores may be important in the age of industrialization, but not anymore. So we look into the ways to reform our education system, not based on test scores, but based on creativity and social and emotional capacities.”

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(View youtube video: South Korea’s exam suicides)


Jang, S. T. (2016). The Effectiveness of Tying Teacher Evaluation Policy to Student Achievement in South Korea. US-China Education Review. Retrieved May 5, 2017, from http://www.davidpublisher.org/Public/uploads/Contribute/56a83bceb751b.pdf

Chakrabarti, R. (2013, December 02). South Korea’s schools: Long days, high results. Retrieved May 07, 2017, from http://www.bbc.com/news/education-25187993

Strauss, V. (2014, August 06). A lesson from South Korea: Student resistance to high-stakes testing. Retrieved May 07, 2017, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/08/06/a-lesson-from-south-korea-student-resistance-to-high-stakes-testing/?utm_term=.f46022d71fde

South Korea Overview. (n.d.). Retrieved May 07, 2017, from http://ncee.org/what-we-do/center-on-international-education-benchmarking/top-performing-countries/south-korea-overview/

(n.d.). Retrieved May 07, 2017, from http://abcnews.go.com/International/video/south-korea-braces-college-entrance-exam-day-43591994

Lee, J. (2011, November 13). South Korean students’ ‘year of hell’ culminates with exams day – CNN.com. Retrieved May 07, 2017, from http://edition.cnn.com/2011/11/10/world/asia/south-korea-exams/

College Entrance Exams for South Korean Students [Korean girl taking a test]. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.thedailypedia.com/2014/11/college-entrance-exams-south-korean-students/

Education glossary. (August 18, 2014) High-Stakes Test. Retrieved May 6, 2017 from http://edglossary.org/high-stakes-testing/

헤. (2015). South Korea still has top OECD suicide rate. Retrieved September 16, 2016, from http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20150830000310

@. (2015). High performance, high pressure in South Korea’s education system. Retrieved September 16, 2016, from http://monitor.icef.com/2014/01/high-performance-high-pressure-in-south-koreas-education-system/

Coughlan, S. (n.d.). Asia tops biggest global school rankings. Retrieved September 16, 2016, from http://www.bbc.com/news/business-32608772

NCEE » South Korea: System and School Organization. (n.d.). Retrieved September 16, 2016, from http://www.ncee.org/programs-affiliates/center-on-international-education-benchmarking/top-performing-countries/south-korea-overview/south-korea-system-and-school-organization/
PISA 2012 Results – OECD. (n.d.). Retrieved September 16, 2016, from http://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/pisa-2012-results.htm

Koo, S. (2014). An Assault Upon Our Children. Retrieved September 16, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/02/opinion/sunday/south-koreas-education-system-hurts-students.html?_r=0
Education in South Korea (n.d.). Retrieved September 16, 2016, from http://wenr.wes.org/2013/06/wenr-june-2013-an-overview-of-education-in-south-korea


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