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(Yonhap Feature) Relief and reflection after quake-delayed college entrance exam

2017/11/28 17:04

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By Kim Seung-yeon

SEOUL, Nov. 28 (Yonhap) -- South Koreans heaved a collective sigh of relief Thursday when the annual college entrance test finished without disruption in the southeastern city of Pohang. The test, originally scheduled for a week before, was delayed across the country after a 5.4 magnitude earthquake rattled the city, injuring scores and damaging hundreds of buildings, including schools.

More than 20,000 police officers and fire fighters were deployed near the city's test sites, and about 200 buses were on standby to move students to alternative sites in case serious quakes occurred during the daylong exam. Despite a minor aftershock, the students ended the test safely.

The rare postponement of the all-important College Scholastic Aptitude Test (CSAT) caused much confusion among students, schools and a number of business sectors, sparking debate over the merit of the once-a-year procedure that largely determines students' futures.

This photo, filed Nov. 15, 2017, captures a school corridor blocked by two desks with a sign that reads "No trespassing" in Pohang, about 370 kilometers southeast of Seoul, where a 5.4 magnitude earthquake happened a day before the college entrance exam was due to be held. (Yonhap) This photo, filed Nov. 15, 2017, captures a school corridor blocked by two desks with a sign that reads "No trespassing" in Pohang, about 370 kilometers southeast of Seoul, where a 5.4 magnitude earthquake happened a day before the college entrance exam was due to be held. (Yonhap)

"The CSAT is a national event to which nothing comparable can be found in any other place, like the United States or Europe," Lee Byung-hoon, a sociology professor at Chung-Ang University said. "What score you get on that one-time, one-day test decides your future. It had to have the ripple effect that we saw after the quake."

   The CSAT is considered a life-determining event for most students in Korea, where seven out of every ten in the population of 52 million go to college and a prestigious university degree guarantee one's way to career success and high social status.

It is the first time the exam was put off due to a natural disaster since it was adopted in 1993. Korea rescheduled the test twice -- in 2005 and 2006 -- because it hosted APEC and Group of 20 summits in the respective years. The decisions were announced months in advance.

The proposal to delay the test was first made by President Moon Jae-in, who was returning from a Asian trip when the second most powerful earthquake on record occurred in the afternoon of Nov. 15.

The government determined that the damage to school buildings in Pohang was much more serious than initially assessed and announced in the evening that the exam would be pushed back for a week due to safety concerns.

Test-takers search for their books on the rooftop of a private tuition building in central Seoul on Nov. 16, 2017, after the college entrance exam was unexpectedly put off for a week due to the Pohang earthquake that hit the country's southeast a day earlier. (Yonhap) Test-takers search for their books on the rooftop of a private tuition building in central Seoul on Nov. 16, 2017, after the college entrance exam was unexpectedly put off for a week due to the Pohang earthquake that hit the country's southeast a day earlier. (Yonhap)

The announcement, made less than 12 hours before 594,000 students were to take the test, immediately triggered a wave of public reaction. The Internet was flooded with tens of thousands of comments of frustration or praise.

"It was way more than a bombshell. My parents and I virtually froze for a few seconds when we first heard it on the news," recalled Lee Tae-joo, an 18-year-old third-year student in a public high school in Gimpo, just west of Seoul. "Then I found myself buried in social media texts from my classmates saying, 'Is this for real?'"

   Kim Hye-young, a 33-year-old office worker, was among many bewildered by the abrupt decision.

"I'd never have imagined that the CSAT (schedule) could be changed," said Kim, who took hers in 2003. "We all spent our teens living and dying for it, and anyone who went through that misery is probably surprised to see it was just another test that can be rearranged."

  

A student gets out of the police vehicle that took her to the test site in the country's southern island of Jeju on Nov. 23, 2017, when the CSAT was held. (Yonhap) A student gets out of the police vehicle that took her to the test site in the country's southern island of Jeju on Nov. 23, 2017, when the CSAT was held. (Yonhap)

Just after the announcement, test applicants flocked to cram schools to retrieve books and notes they threw out on the day they believed was the last before the exam. CSAT-related textbooks were sold out in major bookstores, as those who couldn't find their books from the piles of dumped materials rushed to buy new ones.

The business front was no less chaotic. Travel agencies and restaurants suffered a blow, as celebratory bookings made prior to the exam were canceled or rescheduled. Plastic surgeons were swamped with calls wanting to change appointments for cosmetic surgery, which is popular among college-bound students.

Experts said the post-quake fuss over the college entrance exam reflects a strong sense of attachment to the event among Koreans, whether they like it or not.

"The test delay has shown that, despite its flaws and continued calls for reform, we still have a huge stake in the system," Koo Jeong-woo, a sociology professor at Sungkyunkwan University said. "While the CSAT may be the symbol of our blind faith in good academic records and competition, it's hard to deny the system has been the driver of our human capital."

  

This university hall is packed with parents, students and teachers who came to hear a presentation on a guide to college application strategies hosted by a major private tuition institution in Seoul on Nov. 24, 2017. (Yonhap) This university hall is packed with parents, students and teachers who came to hear a presentation on a guide to college application strategies hosted by a major private tuition institution in Seoul on Nov. 24, 2017. (Yonhap)

elly@yna.co.kr

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