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South Korea cheating scandal hits university bids

By Dan Rivers, CNN
May 10, 2013 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • South Korea SAT tests canceled after cheating scandal was uncovered
  • Scams gave unscrupulous students, parents advance warning about questions
  • SAT tests used to enable students to get into colleges abroad
  • Scandal focusing on "Hakwons" or cramming schools for extra tuition

Seoul, South Korea (CNN) -- I found out that the May SAT test had been canceled across the whole of South Korea just a couple of hours after teachers were told.

A chance conversation with a friend, who is a teacher at an international school here, revealed the scramble to organize alternative tests in other countries for young students hoping to get into elite U.S. universities.

The decision was taken after a widespread cheating scandal was uncovered -- a number of scams were being employed to give some unscrupulous students and their parents advance warning about the questions to be included in the test.

Cramming schools

According to education insiders in South Korea, cheating has been going on for years with cramming schools known as "Hakwons" mostly to blame.

Hakwons provide extra lessons and coaching to ambitious children, who give up their evenings, weekends and holidays to study and revise for crucial exams.

The Prosecutors Office in Seoul has confirmed it has so far raided several of Hakwons looking for evidence -- all 68 registered Hakwons being urgently inspected, according to media reports.

The problem is there are hundreds of unregistered and unregulated cramming schools and tutors in the capital alone, who may be willing to cut corners to improve their results and earn themselves more customers.

Selling papers

It is likely the scandal has tentacles extending across Asia. Brokers in Southeast Asian countries like Thailand are understood to have acquired SAT test papers in advance, selling them for large sums to middle men.

The pressure is there to get the scores. They know there are some avenues where you can achieve higher results, through unsavory or unethical means.
Byung Yeob Yoon, Hakwon teacher

At one of the raided schools in South Korea, a flustered teacher insisted off camera that his Hakwon had done nothing wrong. But at another cramming school, not implicated in the scandal, Vice Principal Byung Yeob Yoon claimed cheating is well known among super ambitious "tiger" parents and their "cub" kids, as they are known here, with tens of thousands of dollars changing hands for the test papers.

"The pressure is there to get the scores. They know there are some avenues where you can achieve higher results, through unsavory or unethical means, and this is a very combustible mixture," he said.

"We get a lot of tiger moms and tiger cubs, and that's why all this hyper competition is happening and that's why people are finding ways to you know skirt the system."

"Just from the grapevine I have heard, tens of thousands of dollars (changes hands) for access to these tests. A lot of parents know where to go, whether it's a subject text or SAT 1."

Difficult decision

The College Board, which runs the SAT system, has issued a statement explaining why it canceled the May SAT test in South Korea.

"The College Board and ETS have made the difficult but necessary decision to cancel the May 2013 administration of the SAT and SAT Subject Tests at all test centers in the Republic of Korea.

"This action is being taken in response to information provided to ETS -- the College Board's vendor for global test administration and security -- by the Supreme Prosecutors' Office regarding tutoring companies in the Republic of Korea that are alleged to have illegally obtained SAT and SAT Subject Test materials for their own commercial benefit.

"The College Board and ETS explored every reasonable alternative to preserve the May 2013 administration before making the decision to cancel, and we recognize that this decision will be met with disappointment by the students in the Republic of Korea who planned to take the May 2013 SAT or SAT Subject Tests as part of the college admission process."

Plan 'B'

"The nature of the Koreans is that they have to be number one, they have to be top, the famous phrase in Korea is that 'A minus is the Korean F,' so it has to be number one."
NLCS Principal Peter Daly

But hardworking students who have not cheated are being penalized by the cancellation of the test. At South Korea's most expensive boarding school, North London Collegiate School (NLCS) on Jeju Island, pupils are scrambling to make alternative arrangements to sit the SAT in other countries like Japan or Hong Kong.

Eighteen-year-old Sophie Lee will sit her SAT test in Hong Kong, much to the annoyance of her parents who will have to pay for the trip. She's hoping to study architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design in the U.S. and needs a good SAT score to get in.

Nick Kim,17, wants to study engineering or economic management either in the U.S. or UK, but he's going to have to wait for another SAT test, possibly meaning he'll miss his chance of going to university next year.

His friend Henry Kim needs a near perfect score of 2,300 out of a maximum 2,400 in his SATS to read physics and engineering in the U.S., so he's traveling to Japan to sit the exam, despite speaking no Japanese. He admits it's putting extra stress on him and may affect his score.

"We are getting penalized for the fact that other people cheated or tried to cheat," he tells me indignantly.

Toby Waterson, a teacher at NLCS, is concerned about the damage to the reputation of Korea's education system.

"I just worry about the tarnish that Korean SAT centers have received in this whole process and I worry therefore about the university places that are going to be offered to our students."

Principal Peter Daly is also worried, but says he's not surprised that Korea's hyper competitive school system has produced a cheating scandal.

"The nature of the Koreans is that they have to be number one, they have to be top, the famous phrase in Korea is that 'A minus is the Korean,' F so it has to be number one. As a result these sort of things unfortunately have happened."

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