Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Reading Comprehension

The bells were quiet today because the second-years were taking a national aptitude test of some sort. My co-teacher explained that it was not a practice 수능, or Korean SAT, but something both similar and much, much worse. The reason this test is the bane of many teachers' existences is that students' scores on it affect much more than their personal academic records. The Ministry of Education compiles the scores from every school and crunches the numbers to determine which schools are succeeding and which are falling short of certain standards. This in turn directs the flow of money and other resources to schools.

What's wrong with this? In short, setting stakes on national standardized testing is good in theory but doesn't work well in practice, because not every school is the same. Not every school should even be the same. Even high schools of the same size and in the same city could have very different student demographics, and thus might have different goals for their students. Vocational high schools, for example, should not have their funding dry up because the majority of their students will perform extremely poorly on the English section of a national aptitude test. Rich students in Seoul whose parents have the resources to send them to private academies for extra tutoring are taking the same test as kids from the Korean boonies; which student actually needs more financial support?

My co-teacher also told me gravely that in the past, teachers who have protested the implementation of the national aptitude tests have been unceremoniously fired. It seems as if those who actually understand the complexities of education are not the ones in charge of how it is run, and that is a travesty.

어쨌든... Anyway, I went off on a tangent there. I actually wanted to write a short, goofy post about the 수능 itself and my random involvement.

Some of my co-teachers have an interesting side job: creating practice reading comprehension questions for the English section of the Korean SAT. The passages they write and the questions they come up with are put through a rigorous editing and selection process and end up in yet another SAT prep book for Korean students to read cover-to-cover. During a particularly hectic few weeks, I was asked to help out and write about a half dozen questions of my own. I did so warily at first, not knowing if I would regret what I'd signed up for, but as it turns out, creating the reading passages was tons of fun. I spent an entire Saturday browsing the Internet for great articles and lectures (from TED talks, journals, news sites, and more) and adapting them for the exam. I covered environmentalism, psychology, language, technology, history, and, yes, even education:

"The problem with many educational systems today is that they fail to accurately measure aptitude. We can collect all the raw data we want: hours spent in school, average scores on the college entrance examination, percentage of graduates with a certain degree. Yet to use these statistics as the only benchmark for educational achievement is a misguided notion at best and a serious flaw in the educational system at worst. One need look no further than the ever-increasing numbers of unemployed college graduates listlessly roaming the streets while potential employers wring their hands over the complete lack of skilled workers to hire. This indicates that higher test scores and better degrees don’t always translate to better jobs, better lives, or better societies. Perhaps we should consider testing our students on their ability to use what they have learned from their textbooks in a real-life situation that mimics an actual workplace. That way, we could better understand if they are __________ and ready for the world outside of the classroom." (Adapted from “Use data to build better schools”, by Andreas Schleicher, TEDTalks)

Give that passage a read and then choose the best word from five choices for the tiny blank at the very end. This is what the English section of the Korean SAT is like, and yes, it's pretty brutal. My co-teacher was impressed with the questions that I had come up with. (To think reading comprehension was always my worst section in the aptitude tests I took in high school...) He was also really grateful that I'd lightened his load a bit: he'd had a quota of fifty questions. Whew.

That notwithstanding, I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed creating these test questions. I mean, I would do it again. I think this adequately proves that I am an incorrigible nerd. Among other things, maybe.


  1. Hmm, sounds a bit like No Child Left Behind... Though in your second paragraph, when you say "national standardization," that to me is something different from determining schools' funding based on test scores. One big difference between the U.S. and French education systems, for example, is that in the U.S., the content of the curriculum is decided very locally (though I hear the new Common Core standards may create some more uniformity?), whereas France has national education, with the same curriculum for the entire country. I'm not against the French system, though I'd probably be for something that strikes a balance between the two. I think it's important that, at least up to a certain point (say middle or high school), students throughout a country are receiving a similarly rigorous education. Otherwise geography could determine how good an education you get. Of course, as you point out, circumstances outside the education system's control (such as a wealthy family's ability to provide extra tutoring for a child) complicate the issue. And yes, you are a nerd. :) Even I don't think writing reading comprehension questions sounds fun...

    1. You're right -- I should clarify that I meant "standardized testing", not "national standardization (of curriculum).

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