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South Korea goes into its annual cone of silence

As 650,000 high school seniors take the exam that will determine which college they go to and perhaps their social standing from now on, the country steps out of their way and stays very quiet.

November 12, 2009|John M. Glionna

SEOUL — Test proctor Chae Su-beom knows the drill. Twice on this all-important day, for a seemingly interminable half-hour at a time, he is required to stand completely still. No coughing, gum-chewing, breathing heavily or even making eye contact with his exam-taking students.

Female minders face additional prohibitions: No excessive makeup or perfume that might give off a distracting scent. No high heels that could go clicketyclack on the linoleum floors.

Today, across South Korea, 650,000 high school seniors will face the most crucial evaluation of their young lives: the national college entrance examination.

And on this day each year, a nation of 48 million holds its collective breath: Grounding airplanes and shushing car horns, noisy vehicular traffic, even loud conversations.

The tightly supervised, carefully controlled testing process reveals a deep-seated national neurosis over success. In the eyes of many here, the exam results determine not only which university will accept them but will also confer social standing for a lifetime.

The exam is from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. But the most critical junctures are half-hour listening portions -- Korean in the morning, English in the afternoon -- that demand a nation's total silence. During these two periods, students listen to tape-recorded snippets of fast-paced dialogue or text and answer questions pertaining to them.

For test-minders like Chae, the pressure is immense.

"I am not allowed to move," said the social studies teacher at Seocho high school in Seoul. "For students, this is the biggest day of their lives, so I have to stand perfectly still or I risk distracting them."

Like the SAT in the United States, the Korean college exam comprises both multiple choice and written responses. But unlike its American counterpart, the Korean test, which covers language, math and history, is given only once a year and cannot be retaken.

That can lead to obsessive, and even illegal, behavior: Cheating scandals are frequent and many students are forced by nervous parents to begin preparing years in advance.

Many South Koreans choose to attend college abroad, but success on the entrance test is critical for those who remain home.

"In Korea, obsession on education backgrounds is prevalent. Therefore, the education system is like a race where everyone tries to go to the best college," said Kim Hye-sook, an education professor at Yonsei University in Seoul.

Exam day is a test that the entire nation seems to feel it must pass.

"It's like, 'Get ready, set, go!' Students all start running at the same time and take the test altogether. People invest all kinds of resources to get their children to the highest level of society," said Kim. "But the final test score isn't influenced by whether their parents are rich or where they live."

Efforts to ensure fairness are often mind-boggling.

In Seoul this year, nearly 100 domestic flights at nearby Gimpo Airport will be either delayed or canceled so as not to conflict with the exam at surrounding schools, according to the Korea Airports Assn.

Morning commute hours will also be delayed in most large cities so students won't get tangled in traffic en route to their test sites. Those who do can request a police escort to make it on time.

Even the national stock market opens an hour later, to account for tardy employees.

At each school where the exam is given, a team of police officers patrols the surrounding neighborhood to ensure quiet. That means no roaring motorcycles or unnecessary horn-blowing.

"Everyone in South Korea knows they have an obligation to contribute," said Kim Eunhee, an English teacher who coordinates the proctors at Seocho high school.

"Even if you don't have your own children, you have nieces and nephews who are taking the test. So you must be quiet. If you don't cooperate you'll be seen as an enemy to all. That's the mentality."

For weeks this fall, Kim and other proctors have been busy preparing. The recent national H1N1 flu scare has added to their work and worries.

Each student must not only have pen and test paper, but two masks and two bottles of hand sanitizer. Special rooms are set aside for ill students.

"Everything must be perfect," Kim emphasized.

Despite the precautions, complaints are numerous.

Each year, district offices are flooded with gripes from parents about test-taking conditions. The chairs were not comfortable enough, they declare, or the room was too cold, or too hot.

Most issues, though, involve the minders, whose mere presence seems to distract some exam-takers. Proctors have been criticized for staring at students, standing too close or walking too noisily.

"If a minder coughs during the listening part of the test, the student is entitled to have that part of the question played over again," Kim said.

"They even feel uncomfortable about our breathing," said Kim Hae-ja, a literature teacher and test proctor at Seocho high school. "Because they are nervous, we are nervous too."

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