Koreans are once again beating themselves up because of the SATs.
The Educational Testing Service (ETS), which administers the SATs on behalf of the College Board, withdrew the biology section from the June 1 SATs. This came after the wholesale cancellation of the May 4 SATs.
According to the Wall Street Journal, ''the latest decision marks the third SAT cancellation for South Korea within the past month due to suspected cheating with leaked test materials. Test-prep center officials say the exam booklets are illegally sold for thousands of dollars to students and their parents from brokers."
And this happened because the Korean law enforcement authorities raided a Hagwon suspected of involvement in enabling cheating and discovered that staff there were leaking test questions. So, they informed ETS accordingly, leading to the cancellation.
The general diagnosis over the whys and wherefores of this incident seems to point toward Korea's hyper-competitive culture of academic excellence as a means of getting ahead in life. This has led to a win-at-all-cost mentality that sacrifices integrity for the sake of short-term, easy wins. Basically, cheating has become an accepted part of the success equation in Korea.
It's hard to argue with this diagnosis, since you see it all the time, all around you. You see it in the sons of the powerful and privileged when they shirk mandatory military service due to some imagined ailment. You see it in the children of the elite when they get into special schools that they are not qualified to enter. And you see it when someone with key connections but not necessarily the right skills snags that new entry position in an elite firm. It's true that cheating is all around us.
But is this recent case of leaking SAT questions cheating? Or have we become so accepting of the"fact" that Koreans are cheaters that we fail to defend ourselves even when there might be cause to do so?
In full disclosure, I was one of the first groups of SAT instructors in Korea. During the summer of 1997, I taught a group of twenty plus Korean students the verbal section of the SAT. They were mostly Korean students who went to international schools in Korea and wanted to go to college in the U.S.
The text I used was Barron's, since that was widely available in Seoul's bookstores even then. It had sample questions and tests that mimicked the actual SAT tests. Accordingly, the organization of the mock tests, question types, and difficulty levels were made to be as similar as possible to the real thing.
But it didn't feel authentic. It just didn't feel real. And that's because it wasn't.
Let's face it. Nothing is real except the real thing. And solving real problems is the best way to prepare for the test. This is true for all tests, whether they are SAT, GMAT, GRE, LSAT, or any other standardized tests that are administered by ETS.
Ultimately, this means that I would have used real test questions to prepare my students if I had been able to gain access to them. And I know that I'm not alone in this. I am sure any teacher worth the name would want get their hands on the best possible material for the students. This is not just a matter of standing out from the crowded SAT marketplace and getting a leg up on the competition. It's also a matter of wanting to do your best for your students.
In the late 1990s, I also taught GMATs. For this class, I actually used real GMAT questions that had been retired because they were made available. I did this because this was the best preparatory material available for my students. And it made total sense to study from questions that had actually been on past test questions. It just makes total sense to solve actual SAT questions to prepare for the SAT's.
The reason this is not allowed is that SAT recycles its questions instead of retiring them after a sitting. Supposedly this is done to even out the levels of difficulty for different versions of the test. But that's a choice made by the test makers to make their jobs easier. And it goes against the natural urge for students to study and the teacher to teach from the best possible preparatory material available.
So, the question we should be asking is, "Why shouldn't SAT makers change their processes in order to eliminate this dilemma that leads to ‘cheating'?" It's their process that's creating a distortion between supply and demand. Even worse, it's their process that's making cheaters where there need not be any.
Just to be clear, this is different from what happened in 2007 when more than 900 scores were voided because brokers took advantage of time differences and paid some to take the test in Thailand and relay the questions and answers to students who were about to take the same tests in Seoul. This was cheating, plain and simple.
But the more recent SAT "cheating" scandal points more to a systemic flaw with SAT makers themselves, not some imaginary moral flaw in Korean society. Koreans shouldn't be so quick to buy into their own guilt. Rather, they should be asking, "Why can't SAT be more like GMAT?"
Jason Lim is a Washington, D.C., based expert on innovation, engagement and organizational culture. He has been writing for The Korea Times since 2006. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook/jasonlim2000 and @jasonlim2012.