Striking a balance in the difficulty level of the university entrance exam is no easy task and has always led to controversies. This year too, a dispute has arisen. However, unlike in the past, this time the College Scholastic Aptitude Test, which took place Thursday, is faulted for being far easier than expected in certain subjects, putting some students at a disadvantage.
The overall scores for this year's CSAT, or Suneung in Korean, are expected to climb from last year. According to Kim Myung-chan of private education institute Jongro Academy, the broader rise in the average scores could spell trouble for students who have to compete in the next stage of essay writing and interviews as there will be a smaller ranger of Suneung scores.
Kim said that as the average scores go up, more students will move up a notch in the nine-grade scoring system, undercutting the advantage of some students who are already in the upper ranking. As more students fall into a single ranking, competition will become tougher, which will push candidates to apply for colleges with lower cutoff scores.
The key subject that boosted the average scores was English. The Ministry of Education had stressed that the difficulty level of English on the college entrance exam would be lowered to help curb the soaring costs linked to English learning at private institutes.
In addition, the math tests proved easier than expected, catching students and education experts off guard.
The Korean and math tests had an easier "A" version and more difficult "B" version, and according to local education firm Haneul Education, the cutoff for getting the top rating on the math B test is expected to be 100, the maximum score.
The cutoff is far higher than last year's 92, for both the A and B versions, which means a single mistake could cost students the top grade and severely impair their chance of getting accepted at a prestigious university.
The minimum score for getting the top rating in English was 98 points, significantly higher than last year's cutoff of 93. Experts said this year's Suneung English test was the "easiest ever."
The subject of Korean is likely to be the lone exception, with test-takers complaining it was much harder than expected.
If the difficulty level of the national exam remains like this, colleges may consider whether they should continue to use it as the key yardstick to screen applicants, experts said.
Im Seong-ho, chief of Hanuel Education, said some colleges might place more focus on early admission programs that consider only student essays, interviews and school grades without taking into account their Suneung scores.
"Questions on this year's Suneung were too easy," he said. "It was downright sloppy."
Since its introduction in 1994, getting good scores on the annual Suneung exam has been critical for making it into a top-tier college.