S Korea exam chief resigns over errors in high-stakes college test

The country's college exam is the culmination of 10 years of gruelling, high pressure study and substantial financial sacrifice, resulting in the national uproar over two multiple-choice questions in the college entrance exam.

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SEOUL // South Korea’s education minister apologised and the head of the national exam board resigned on Monday after accepting that there were errors in two questions in the country’s cut-throat college entrance test.

It comes on the heels of a flood of complaints from students and parents for whom the college exam is the culmination of 10 years of gruelling, high pressure study and substantial financial sacrifice.

“I express deep regret and recognise an urgent need to improve the question-making process,” education minister Hwang Woo-yea said in a televised statement.

“We will investigate the root cause of the problem.”

Nearly 650,000 students across the country sat the November 16 exam that will go a long way to defining their adult lives in an ultra-competitive society.

Success means a secured place in one of South Korea’s elite universities — a key to future careers as well as marriage prospects.

With so many taking the exam — and so many scoring highly — one small error can put a student on the wrong side of the extremely thin cut-off line for a top university.

Hence the uproar over the two suspect multiple-choice questions — one in the biology exam and one in the English language paper.

The authorities agreed on Monday that the questions were faulty and announced they would accept two possible answers as correct in each case.

South Korean media reports estimated that as many as 4,000 students would receive a higher overall grade as a result of the decision.

Kim Sung-hoon, head of the Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation (KICE) which administers the exam, said he would resign.

“We did our best this year to prevent erroneous questions ... but again there were faulty questions, causing chaos and inconvenience among exam takers, their parents and teachers,” Mr Kim said.

He was the third head of the KICE to resign over problems with the national test.

“This whole episode really illustrates the reality faced by South Korean teenagers, and the enormous pressure they are under,” said Park Sang-hee, a Seoul-based education counsellor.

“Students and their parents dedicate more than 10 years of their lives preparing for this exam, and a stupid mistake like this can end up completely changing their life path,” Ms Park said.

A similar row over a question in the geography paper in 2013 took a lot longer to resolve.

The year-long legal battle only ended last month, when the Seoul high court ruled in favour of four students who argued the question was fundamentally flawed.

Dodgy questions aside, KICE receives numerous complaints every year about the handling of the exam — many of them focused on the allegedly “distracting” behaviour of the invigilators.

These have included complaints about the noise made by monitors with high heels, “excessive sniffling” by those with colds and the use of overpowering perfume.

The pressures surrounding the exam fuel a perennial debate in South Korea about the country’s obsession with education and the pros and cons of the college entrance system.

The bottom line for many is that the examination itself is fair. Everyone takes the same paper, which relies on the multiple choice system to prevent subjective marking.

Security is absolute. The hundreds of exam setters are sequestered for more than a month in a secret location, and are only allowed to leave once the test has been taken.

According to the education ministry, South Korean parents spent 19 trillion won (Dh62.5 billion) on extra tuition for their children last year — equivalent to about 1.5 per cent of the national GDP.

* Agence France-Presse