Paying for Perfection

SATs were over the weekend. For most of us Uppers, they were an inconvenience, an interruption to our weekend, an inevitability on the long trek that is getting into college. But as some of us made every attempt to ignore the slow approach of January 28, while others frantically leafed through vocabulary flashcards, we were probably not thinking of what else the SATs represent: a global, billion-dollar industry.

According to a 2009 article in Wired Magazine, the test prep industry rakes in $4 billion a year.

Just two weeks ago, Summit Educational Group, the test prep service that administered the free practice SATs last month, conducted on-campus math and verbal SAT workshops, with each two-hour session costing $75. Back home in California, I often hear of people having to give up hours of their weekends to attend “Excel Test Prep” or “Elite Educational Institute.”

As paying for test prep services has become increasingly common in the U.S., the forms the services take on have multiplied. Money Magazine writer Penelope Wang illustrates the multifaceted industry in her 2007 article: “There’s online review ($99 and up), big classes (typically $1,000) and small groups ($1,500), as well as one-on-one tutoring (20 or so sessions for $2,700 to $8,000, depending on the tutor’s experience).”

The ever-growing presence of the test prep industry introduces economic inequity to a supposedly fair system. Tests like the SAT are supposed to be “standardized.” They are meant to be measures of ability on a level playing field. The existence of such an industry works against that very intention and gives an inevitable edge to students who can afford test prep services. Wang writes, “There are also a growing number of local companies that cater to upper-middle-class and wealthy families who are willing to pay even more.” Wang cites Advantage Testing, a tutoring and test prep firm where a 50-minute session costs anywhere from $80 to $165 and “top tutors” charge upwards of $500.

Although the numerous and expensive options for test prep introduce an economic advantage into a supposedly fair system, some consolation lies in the fact that many high school students spend only modestly or not at all on test prep. It has not yet become the norm in the U.S. to spend thousands of dollars a year on SAT courses.

However, that’s far from the case in South Korea.

I asked a friend recently what she was doing to prepare for SATs. She answered with a question, asking me if I knew what a “hagwon” was. Over the summer and winter breaks, my friend had taken SAT classes at a “hagwon” back home in South Korea.

Hagwons, commonly known as cram schools, are for-profit educational institutions that offer their students, paying customers, auxiliary out-of-school study. Many specialize in rigorous standardized test preparation courses. Another friend, who took the practice SAT with me two weekends ago, left the practice session early after realizing that she had already done one of the sections in an earlier hagwon session.

According to a 2007 article in “The Korea Times,” one Seoul-based hagwon charged more than 10 million won, or around $8680, for a 10-week SAT math course. But despite these exorbitant prices, paying for hagwon classes in South Korea is a social norm. In fact, those who don’t attend disadvantage themselves. An October 2011 article published in “The Toronto Star” quoted a 21-year-old South Korean university student who had immigrated to Canada: “All students in Korea – even babies – they go to hagwon. So if you don’t go to hagwon, then you feel like you’re behind,” the student said. The 2007 “Korea Times” article included the story of a Korean–American student in the U.S., who traveled by herself to Korea, where she rented an apartment for two months in order to attend a hagwon SAT course while her parents remained in the States.

In Korea, the test prep industry is not only an economic marvel but also a cultural phenomenon. The rampant social embrace of hagwons reveals how the test prep business has wormed its way into the lives of Korea’s youth. Attending cram schools has simply become part of the lives of students.

But let’s step back and think for a moment. Eighty-four percent of Korea’s high school students in 2010 were spending time in after school hagwon programs, giving up hours of their time for test prep or tutoring. The typical Korean-American student gave up two months of her summer. Instead of relaxing, unwinding and recharging in her spare time, she was working. For what? Improved grades, better tests, and -– in many cases –-higher SAT scores.

A fixation with scoring high on the SAT has spawned its own culture of specialized institutions, steep fees and late-night test prep regimens. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with a drive to excel academically, studying for the sake of a score is unhealthy, especially when that fixation begins to affect how students are spending their time out of school.

Korean students and their families’ thirst for high scores is the moving force behind the test prep industry – an industry that at the end of the day, consists of private, for-profit corporations that only label themselves “educational institutions.” Attendees and their parents are buying unquestioningly into a system that has rapidly grown in the shadows of standardized testing and that has successfully permeated society and established itself as a cultural norm. This inherent acceptance of a money driven industry that masks itself with education isn’t necessarily bad, but must be treated with apprehension. Students should learn for the sake of learning, not to simply improve a standardized test score. Anything else undermines the point of education.

Connie Cheng is a three-year Upper from Milpitas, CA and Executive Editor of The Phillipian.