Although the standardized test topic was the Korean language, the students had to answer questions about equity capital and risk-weighted bank assets. Problems on the “society” portion of the exam challenged them to decipher three-dimensional hypothetical analyses of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development.
For years, high school seniors in South Korea taking the annual college entrance exam known as the College Scholastic Ability Test, or the CSAT, have faced what are commonly called “killer questions” — extremely difficult problems that are seemingly incongruous with the section titles they fall under and that are sometimes outside the scope of the public education system curriculum.
The test, notorious not just for its rigor, has also long kept the private education industry booming. So-called cram schools are typically filled with students until well past midnight, and the stakes that come with acing the CSAT have fueled an intense rat race among students to enter the nation’s best universities. Hundreds of thousands of students sit for the nine-hour exam, typically held every November.
But this week, after government officials complained about “killer questions,” the head of the organization that administers the exam stepped down.
“I decided to take responsibility and resign,” Lee Gue-min, the president of the Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation, said in a statement on Monday. “We apologize for causing concern to the students and parents who have been having a hard time preparing for the exam.”
Mr. Lee, whose term was set to run through February 2025, stepped down just days after government officials had raised concerns over the test including material not covered by the public school curriculum. Last week, President Yoon Suk Yeol asked that material not covered in public school be removed from the exams.
On Wednesday, the Ministry of Education announced that it would drop the “killer questions” as a way to reduce families’ reliance on private schooling and the financial burden that comes with that. The changes are set to take effect with this year’s CSAT.
South Korea’s private education sector has flourished over the past few decades, thanks to cram schools. Last year, families spent a whopping 26 trillion won — around $20 billion — on private education, a 10 percent increase from the year before, according to government statistics.
The exam has also been openly criticized by academics, who echo the government’s concerns. “I was dumbfounded and angry,” Kim Kwang-doo, a professor of economics at Sogang University in Seoul, wrote on Facebook in response to a CSAT problem. “Is there a high school student who could solve problems that are this difficult without the help of top instructors at private academies?”
The government’s push to lighten the burden of private education costs might be a welcome move to some, but those in the private academy business say the effort might not make a difference.
Students attend private academies to prepare for test questions of all levels of complexity, not just the “killer” ones, said Kang Ho-nam, the executive vice president of a private math tutoring service based in Seoul that uses artificial intelligence.
“By changing the exam so close to the date, students will be even more anxious, leading to their continued enrollment in private academies,” he said, adding that the CSAT was a comprehensive exam.
By eliminating the most difficult questions that students might typically get wrong, test takers will be subject to bigger point penalties for making mistakes on easier questions, suggested Koo Yong-hyun, a former private tutor who has helped prepare more than 50 students over the past decade for the CSAT. “Killer questions ensure that the efforts of the top students don’t go to waste,” he said.