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Asia

ACT test leak scandal highlights growing academic pressure

A college entry exam used to gain entry to US universities was recently canceled in South Korea and Hong Kong due to an alleged breach of test materials. DW takes a look at the high academic expectations in these places.

The ACT college entrance exam was canceled on Saturday, June 11, across 56 test centers in South Korea and Hong Kong, places where high expectations of academic achievement put an enormous pressure on students.

The incident marks the first time the ACT has been canceled for an entire country and affects more than 5,000 students who were scheduled to take the exam.

Iowa-based ACT Inc., the test's administrator, said on Wednesday that the students have no other option but to wait until the next scheduled test in September.

"Unfortunately, due to the nature of the cancellation and the ongoing investigation, ACT is unable to offer a retest opportunity before the next scheduled administration in September," ACT vice president for strategic growth markets Bryan Maach was quoted by news agency Reuters as saying.

Exam security concerns

This is, however, not the first time security issues have halted tests in South Korea. In 2013, The College Board, a company that administers the rival SAT college-bound exam, was forced to cancel tests across South Korea after exam materials had been leaked. It also canceled tests in China and Hong Kong for similar reasons.

Furthermore, a court in South Korea determined this month that students and officials caught selling stolen college-entrance exams would be fined up to six million won, or around 4,500 euros.

Südkorea Multikulturelle Gesellschaft

Thousands of South Korean students have been affected by the cancellation

The decision was made after widespread cheating scandals erupted in the country, where students face huge social pressure to do well in tests.

A South Korean teacher, who helps prepare students for entrance into college, told DW that this pressure comes from not only teachers but also from parents and other students.

"Students face demands at home and at school to succeed, but they also face pressure from their peers. Young people don't want to feel left out, and the growing pressure from their parents and teachers impacts them more than they know," said the teacher, who wishes to remain anonymous.

"Even as a teacher, I cringe knowing that when students are done with school they'll most likely go home and spend the rest of the day and night studying."

Demands to succeed

Academic pressure has become a concern across parts of Asia, as more and more students grow increasingly unhappy and stressed due to the untold demand from teachers, parents and their peers.

In South Korea, college exams are a big deal; traffic is delayed, planes are halted and parents and grandparents pray for good results. Similar experiences occur in Hong Kong, where academic burden begins well before middle school.

The Children's Happiness Index, a survey conducted by Lingnan University in Hong Kong, showed that children aged eight, nine and over 14-years-old are noticeably unhappy due to heightened academic stress.

"Hong Kong children are probably indirectly influenced by the tense socio-political atmosphere, in addition to heightened pressure from studies."

According to the survey, nine-year-old students spend around 150 minutes on homework every day, up from 140 minutes the previous year. They also spend the highest amount of time on homework than all other student age groups.

At the same time, only around 36 percent of the more than 1,000 students surveyed think their school curriculum is interesting.

Furthermore, of the more than 1,500 parents surveyed, the study suggests that "parents may have become more anxious about students' academic performance," which may result in children being disciplined. The survey points out that "disciplining children is the single most important factor behind family disharmony."

Overall, the results, which were published in March this year, showed that the level of happiness amongst students had dropped to its lowest on record - to 6.49 (on a scale of 0 to 10) from 6.74 in 2014.

That drop in happiness has become evident in Hong Kong, where 22 young people committed suicide at the start of the current academic year. Their deaths are largely blamed on the education system.

Tackling student stress

To combat the problem, Hong Kong's Education Bureau has announced emergency measures to better deal with student stress. Their plans include improving school counseling support, holding seminars for teachers and parents on how to identify problems and forming a committee on preventative solutions.

The South Korean government has introduced similar reforms. However, it's largely believed that there is still a long way to go to resolve the issue.

"I've taught students from all over South Korea as well as international students, and believe me, students as young as five are pressured to do well in school," the Korean teacher said. "It's no wonder some of these students cheat. The pressure from everyone has got to be unbearable."