High-Stakes Testing: A comparison of policies in the U.S., Finland, and South Korea
High-Stakes Testing: A comparison of policies in the U.S., Finland, and South Korea

As the spring semester is flying by, high school juniors across the United States are preparing for the dreaded SAT or ACT. Halfway across the world in South Korea, high school seniors are also vigorously studying for their stressful college entrance exams. Meanwhile one group of students not preparing for college entrance exams are the Finns, as there is no national, standardized college entrance exam in Finland.

The United States, South Korea, and Finland provide three starkly different approaches to standardized testing and education in general. What are the reasons behind their testing cultures? What are the outcomes of their testing system (or lack thereof)? Is one approach better than another?

This analysis will compare and contrast American, South Korean and Finnish approaches to standardized testing.

United States

>The recent decision by the College Board to completely revamp the SAT by 2016 has sparked a national debate on the merits of the SATs, ACTs and standardized testing in general. Some believe the current SAT hurts poor students since many are not able to afford the expensive test preparation courses. One study by the University of California showed that the SAT was a poor predictor of college performance, though other studies do find a correlation. Some colleges have decided to eliminate the use of the SAT and ACT as admission requirements, though 80 percent of colleges still require one of the two standardized tests (Balf, 2014).

The SAT was developed in 1926 to promote meritocracy because it was supposed to measure innate intelligence. The creators believed that no one could prepare for the test. Kaplan, Princeton Review and other test preparation corporations have since proven that it is possible to prepare for the exam. The new exam will try to help those who cannot access expensive preparation courses by better aligning the test to skills gained in high school courses, such as critical thinking, problem-solving, data analysis, evidence-based reading and writing and analysis of primary documents. Furthermore, the College Board is exploring a partnership with the Khan Academy to offer free test prep online (Balf, 2014).

The new SAT seems to align with the Common Core, which focuses on building the same skillset. Only time will tell whether the new SAT better predicts success in college and whether the test demonstrates comparable results for students from all socio-economic backgrounds. This latter outcome though may be impossible as all U.S. school districts are not equal in rigor and teacher quality. The new SAT and the Common Core reflect an acknowledgement that previous exams and curricular frameworks were not sufficient. Changing the test does not address other inequities in the U.S. education system, which result in real difference in college performance.



Unlike the United States, Finland does not use a national standardized test to determine college admissions. Nor does Finland use standardized tests to compare and contrast primary and secondary school students and their schools. Assessment is carried out at the local level. Teachers determine the design and timing of the exams, which are used to monitor student progress (Standardized Testing A Foreign Concept In Finland With World’s Top Students, 2012).

Finland has focused on democratizing education. There are very few private schools in the country and the government tries to ensure that all schools have the same quality teachers and resources. Schools are equally funded, unlike the U.S. where the local tax base determines school funding. Furthermore, teachers are selected from the top ten percent of college students and teacher education students get funding to receive a free master’s degree from a Finnish university.  While teacher’s salaries are not higher, the autonomy given to Finnish teachers is often cited as the reason for the country’s low attrition rate (Dalporto, n.d.).

Finland’s decentralized education policy was borne out of a system of tightly controlled, centrally-driven education system. In the 1960’s there was a nationally-mandated curriculum. Professional development workshops were funded and the government made a master’s degree a requirement for all teachers. Teachers were also required to be content experts as well. The government finally loosened control in the 1990s (Porter-Magee, 2012).

Finland has clearly tackled many of the challenges facing the U.S. primary and secondary educations system. Equal school funding and more teacher autonomy could be adopted by the U.S.  It would be difficult to adopt these policies on a national level because education policy is mainly determined on the state and local level.

South Korea


South Korea offers a completely different education paradigm. It is similar to Finland in that the country focuses on an equal-opportunity system where teachers are highly revered. The education system though places a high importance on testing.

South Korea’s culture of testing is one of the most intense systems in the world. The tradition of testing began in the 10th century when sons of elite families took exams to receive government jobs. Following the Korean War, South Korea focused its energies on modernizing their education system. At this time, families started emphasizing education as a means of enhancing family stature and income. A lottery system was started, though there were not enough places for all students to receive a university education. This is the roots of the high stakes testing system (Ripley, 2014).

South Korea uses high stakes testing to determine high school and college admission. Social status, marriage eligibility and work prospects are all determined by the test outcomes. So, preparation for this test often begins at preschool. (Dalporto, South Korea’s School Success, n.d.). The testing culture is so intense that suicidal thoughts are high amongst low scorers on the exams (Wang, 2013).

The high-stakes tests are the sole focus on South Korean childhood. Students often study until10pm every night. Poor families dedicate up to one-third of their disposable income on test preparation and the amount spent by rich families is even higher.  Some believe that middle class South Koreans are emigrating to the U.S. to avoid this high stakes testing culture. Others believe the low birth rate in South Korea is also tied to the high stakes testing culture as well (Choi, 2009). These potential outcomes should make policymakers think twice before adopting the South Korean approach to high-stakes testing.


The culture (or lack thereof) of high stakes testing is not easy to change. There are many reasons why the U.S. and South Korea have high stakes testing and why Finland does not. Simply getting rid of the exam, without looking at the broader educational system, will not solve the need to determine who is qualified to attend college.

All countries seemed to create policies that would result in a meritocratic system, though the achievement of this goal is varied. School rigor is not the same in every school across the U.S. Grade inflation is also rampant in many U.S. schools. So, admissions offices need another way to choose applicants.  High stakes testing is needed to compare and contrast college applicants in the U.S. and this need will not be disappearing anytime soon.

Both South Korea and Finland focus on school equality. Looking to give students the best possible education no matter where they live is noble, though very hard to achieve in reality. Focusing on improving the quality of teachers though is more achievable goal than changing the culture of testing. The test will matter less when education is democratized because less-stressful homegrown assessments will be more comparable.

The steps that the College Board is taking to improve the SAT to align more with the common core seem to be a step in the right direction. At the end of the day, there needs to be emphasis placed on school equality and teacher quality as well because an improved test will not fix a broken school system.

Works Cited

Balf, T. (2014, March 6). The story behind the SAT overhaul. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/09/magazine/the-story-behind-the-sat-overhaul.html?ref=education

Choi, S. (2009, December 7). Korean children excel at testing, but at a price. The Journal Gazette. Retrieved from: http://www.journalgazette.net/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20091207/EDIT05/312079996/1147/EDIT07&template=printart

Dalporto, D. (n.d.). Finland’s A+ schools. Retrieved from: http://www.weareteachers.com/hot-topics/special-reports/teaching-around-the-world/finlands-a-plus-schools

Dalporto, D. (n.d.). South Korea’s school success. Retrieved from: http://www.weareteachers.com/hot-topics/special-reports/teaching-around-the-world/south-koreas-school-success

Porter-Magee, K (2012, December 27). Real lessons from Finland: Hard choices, rigorously implemented. Retrieved from: http://www.edexcellence.net/commentary/education-gadfly-daily/flypaper/2012/real-lessons-from-finland-hard-choices-rigorously-implemented.html

Ripley, A. (2014, January 28). Book club: South Korea hates its world-class education system. Retrieved from: http://talkingpointsmemo.com/cafe/book-club-south-korea-hates-its-world-class-education-system

Standardized testing a foreign concept in Finland with world’s top students (2012, November 16). The Huffington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/16/standardized-testing-a-fo_n_2145623.html

Wang, L.C. (2013). The deadly effect of high-stakes testing on teenagers with reference-dependent. Retrieved from: http://www.buseco.monash.edu.au/eco/research/papers/2013/4013deadlywang.pdf

*Source: Picture of Finnish children

* Source: Picture of South Korean students

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