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April 15, 2021
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Asia’s Exam Obsession Puts Children in Harm’s Way. Isn’t it Time we Stopped?

It seems unbelievable to think that the simple act of taking a test could cause a child to run away from home, but that — and much worse — is the kind of thing that happens in communities throughout Asia and the Asian American community far too often.

Asian parents have, for a long time, been known to push their children to achieve academic perfection. In the United States, for many immigrant parents from Asia, that means doing well on the SATs and ACTs and getting accepted into a prestigious college.

Asian American parents don’t seem to mind that it has been proven that SAT scores don’t predict college success. They still want those scores to be as close to perfect as possible. However, what they should care about, along with parents in Asian countries where academic testing is a way of life, is that this drive for perfection can take a huge mental toll on high school and college students.

Being a teenager itself is not easy, with teens and young adults being at high risk of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. Part of what contributes to this anxiety, particularly for Asian teens and those of Asian descent, is the pressure to perform well on college entrance exams. They can become inundated with messages from parents telling them that every facet of their lives should be concentrated on being accepted into an esteemed college.

In fact, an entire industry has grown up around helping students prepare for standardized tests like the SATs in the US. Wealthy parents drop thousands of dollars on getting their children ready for these exams.

This immense pressure and focus on success in Asian American communities is a holdover from Asian countries themselves where academic success is highly coveted. At its worst, it can end in tragedy.

Last year in India, 23 students committed suicide in one state alone when their “school leaving exam” results were released. Even sadder is that the initial test results that had been released were found to be faulty due to technical issues with the company responsible for administering the exams. Subsequent results showed that many students who initially thought they had failed had actually performed well, but by then it was too late for many.

Suicides also happen in the US Asian community, as well.

Gunn High School in Palo Alto, CA, for example had a suicide crisis a few years ago, as several students at the highly competitive high school had killed themselves due to their perceived poor test performance. The vast majority were Asian American students.

Students at Gunn High told San Francisco Magazine at the time about the intense internal pressure and competition.

“I feel like I’m never doing enough, not using my time wisely, not working hard enough,”

Ryeri Lim, a junior originally from South Korea, had said.

“It goes deep, this disappointment in ourselves.”

In South Korea, the push to get students into higher ranked universities is destroying lives, according to an op-ed in the New York Times.

“600,000 South Korean high school seniors will take the brutal university entrance exam, which many have been preparing for since primary school,” the Op-ed says. “The results will shape the rest of their lives, their jobs and even their marriages. The stress is such that the suicide rate among young people up to age 24 rose to 9.4 per 100,000 in 2010, a nearly 50 percent increase from 2000.”

More than 70% of high school graduates enter university in South Korea and getting into a more prestigious university is such an obsession in the country that the government believes it is actually damaging society. It is such an obsession that almost 12 percent of consumer spending in 2012 was for tutors and so-called “cram schools” to help students prepare for exams. That’s equivalent to 1.5% of the entire country’s GDP and there are reportedly more cram school instructors than actual school teachers in the country helping kids pass exams that are so rigorous actual university professors have said they’d have a hard time passing them.

And it’s not only affecting young people. Helping youth prepare for difficult exams is actually putting elderly people in poverty because they are spending so much money on it. In addition to that, South Korean families cannot afford more children, helping to lower the overall birth rate to about 1.2 births per woman, which isn’t enough to replace the population.

Education spending is also sky-high in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and China, where 90% of middle-class students attend cram schools.

Another insidious result of relying too much on standardized testing is that it promotes rote learning where students just memorize facts and don’t learn to think critically for themselves. This has caused a rise in a new type of tutoring school in places like Korea and the USA that basically teach students how to think because they haven’t really learned the skill properly as they prepare for standardized testing.

What we can do.

With these college entrance exams causing so much trouble for young people and society in general, it is worth asking what we can do about them.

On the policy side, universities can stop relying so heavily on standardized examinations for their admission requirements. Government officials in Japan have reportedly looked into broader admissions requirements for universities that take more into account than just exam results, but they’ve faced pushback from universities that believe this would make entrance requirements too subjective.

In the United States, many universities have dumped the SAT or ACT exam requirements for college entrance (or, at least put much less of a focus on them). The more famous elite schools like Harvard, Yale or Princeton are not among them, but if parents are willing to forego name recognition, their kids can still get into a great school without having to cram for a standardized test and undergo undue strain.

And that brings us to the second and more important change that needs to happen: a cultural shift.

Academic overachievement is ingrained in Asian cultures throughout the entire continent and in the many expat communities in North America, Europe and elsewhere. It won’t be easy, but we will have to change the way we think about education and its importance for children.

As Matt Richtel writes for The New York Times:

“It is time, perhaps, for us to take a good, hard look at the undue emphasis our community places on college prestige and admissions. What does it mean for our community when we focus so much of our energies on getting our children into Harvard, as if a Harvard offer letter was the defining metric by which we measure our kids’ merit and success?”

Jenn Fang points out in Quartz that there are plenty of bright and intellectually gifted children who have a great future ahead of them, but who don’t perform well on standardized tests and have no interest in getting into Harvard.

If given the chance, these kids could excel at whatever they choose to. But, too often they are pushed to perform well on these standardized exams only to discover that even if they do get accepted to a prestigious school, it doesn’t come with the happiness and fulfillment they were told it would.

It’s no easy task to change your mindset when it is ingrained in you from a cultural standpoint, but for the sake of your children’s mental health, accepting that getting into a prestigious school isn’t the most important thing in life could be the difference between a happy child and the ultimate tragedy.

Instead of vying for perfection, isn’t time we let our kids vie for happiness on their own terms instead?

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