Cutthroat Classes

At the age of 16, Lee Hyuk Joon's life is a living hell. The South Korean 10th grader gets up at 6 in the morning to go to school, and studies most of the day until returning home at 6 p.m. After dinner, it's time to hit the books again--at one of Seoul's many so-called cram schools. Lee gets back home at 1 in the morning, sleeps less than five hours, then repeats the routine--five days a week. It's a grueling schedule, but Lee worries that it may not be good enough to get him into a top university. Some of his classmates study even harder. During May's midterm exam week, he says, some slept only two or three hours a day. Competition for grades was so intense that some students stole their classmates' notebooks to damage their test scores. "There is a saying among my friends--'Pass at three and fail at four'," Lee says. "Only those who sleep three hours will enter a decent university."

South Korea's education system has long been highly competitive. But for Lee and the other 700,000 high-school sophomores in the country, high-school studies have gotten even more intense. That's because South Korea has conceived a new college-entrance system, which will be implemented in 2008. This year's 10th graders will be the first group evaluated by the new admissions standard, which places more emphasis on grades in the three years of high school and less on nationwide SAT-style and other selection tests, which have traditionally determined which students go to the elite colleges.

The change was made mostly to reduce what the government says is a growing education gap in the country: wealthy students go to the best colleges and get the best jobs, keeping the children of poorer families on the social margins. The aim is to reduce the importance of costly tutors and cram schools, partly to help students enjoy a more normal high-school life. But the new system has had the opposite effect. Before, students didn't worry too much about their grade-point averages; the big challenge was beating the standardized tests as high-school seniors. Now students are competing against one another over a three-year period, and every midterm and final test is crucial. Fretful parents are relying even more heavily on tutors and cram schools to help their children succeed. Already this year at least 10 high-school students have committed suicide because of exam pressure or disappointing grades.

Parents and kids have sent thousands of angry online letters to the Education Ministry complaining that the new admissions standard is setting students against one another. "The system has turned friends into enemies," says Lim Sun Jae, a civic activist who helped organize a candlelight vigil in May for the students who have killed themselves. "One can succeed only when others fail."

Education experts say that South Korea's public secondary-school system is foundering, while private education is thriving. According to critics, the country's high schools are almost uniformly mediocre--the result of an egalitarian government education policy. With the number of elite schools strictly controlled by the government, even the brightest students typically have to settle for ordinary schools in their neighborhoods, where the curriculum is centered on average students. To make up for the mediocrity, zealous parents send their kids to the pricey cram schools.

Students in affluent southern Seoul neighborhoods complain that the new system will hurt them the most. Nearly all Korean high schools will be weighted equally in the college-entrance process, and relatively weak students in provincial schools, who may not score well on standardized tests, often compile good grade-point averages.

Some universities, particularly prestigious ones, openly complain that they cannot select the best students under the new system because it obviates differences among high schools. They've asked for more discretion in picking students by giving more weight to such screening tools as essay writing or interviews. "Realistically, we cannot ignore the big regional difference among high schools," says Kim Young So, admissions director at Sogang University in Seoul.

President Roh Moo Hyun doesn't like how some colleges are trying to circumvent the new system. He recently decried "greedy" universities that focus more on finding the best students than trying to "nurture good students." But amid the crossfire between the government and universities, the country's 10th graders are feeling the stress. On online protest sites, some are calling themselves a "cursed generation" and "mice in a lab experiment." It all seems a touch melodramatic, but that's the South Korean school system.