Notoriously known as the suneung in Korea, the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT) is a rigorous eight-hour exam determining universities, job prospects, future income, and even social relationships of Korean students—the culmination of their 12 years in school and extensive practice in hagwons. Silence pervades the country as construction works are instructed to halt, planes are barred from takeoff, and shops are delayed in their usual opening times to minimize even the most trivial disturbances. While anxious and sleep deprived students file into their schools, parents swarm into temples and churches to pray dearly for their children’s blessing.
In response to the pressure induced by the CSAT and other school exams, a startling number of Korean students are resorting to the morally decadent option of cheating. In the recent Sookmyung Girls’ High School cheating scandal, expulsion awaits two twin girls convicted guilty of getting prior access to the school’s semester exam with help from their father, a senior school administrator, who was arrested after a police confirmation of leaked test answers. Suspicions first arose when these students suddenly rose to the top from the bottom of their class in a limited amount of time, shocking their peers who were consequently pushed down in their class rankings.
Nonetheless, it is important to acknowledge the fact that this growing pattern of cheating near the CSAT exam date is not wholly unexpected. Cheating is no longer a problem with only a select group of incorrigible students or the inadequacy of harsh discipline and regulations. The true culprits of cheating are the unrealistic expectations of Korean culture and its obsession with standardized testing, perfect scores, and admissions to prestigious universities. The prevailing misconception that a college degree is a prerequisite to a successful life has pressured students into feeling that cheating is the only viable resort they have in satiating the grandiose and idealistic expectations of their parents.
When students are blindly pressured to rank in the top percentile of their class and strongly condemned if they fail to do so, they are hindered from evaluating what is truly important in their lives, their aspirations, and most importantly, their integrity and honor. There is no room for moral and personal improvement as students monotonously memorize an endless list of vocabulary words and mathematical formulas without truly understanding any of them. The excessive desire to out-compete peers instead of to mutually encourage and support their growth has bred a generation of students willing to compromise their fundamental moral values as human beings.
The first step Korea should take in order to support student growth and debunk a rigid perception of academic success is to undergo systematic reforms in its educational curriculum. One specific solution is to take away the unnecessary stress and burden on students by getting rid of a national standardized exam like the CSAT and ensure that their futures are not completely dictated by a single exam. Schools should not continuously rank and compare students based on numerical scores or letter grades, but assess and encourage the growth of students with qualitative and constructive feedback.
Hence, before we solely condemn the twin girls at Sookmyung Girls’ High School for cheating on their exams, we should consider the larger picture of the society they live in and what kind of other factors are at play. It is time for us to recognize the flaws of the Korean education system that encourages the rapid decay of moral standards and reform the curriculum to be truly conducive to student growth.