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Curved grading fuels Arabic’s popularity in college exam

Over half of all students taking the “second foreign language” option in this year’s college entrance exam have opted for Arabic, which appears to be fueled by the widespread belief that the curved grading system makes it easier to get high grades in the subject, a local private education firm said Tuesday.

According to Haneul Education, 51.6 percent of students who chose the second foreign language for the exam -- known here as Suneung -- will take Arabic test while another 18.5 percent of the applicants will take Vietnamese.

The second foreign language is one of the optional tests in Suneung, in which students can choose out of nine subjects including Japanese, German, Chinese, Spanish, French, Russian and Chinese characters. A total of 90,752 students are taking the subject in this year’s Suneung, roughly 14 percent of 631,184 applicants for the test.

Applicants for the Arabic exam in particular nearly tripled from 9,969 in the previous year, overtaking Vietnamese as the most popular second language. The number of students taking Arabic has increased by 175 times compared to 2005.

Experts point out this trend is peculiar, given that the two languages are the least commonly taught at schools here.

The government-commissioned mock exam for Suneung conducts all subjects for the entrance exam excluding Vietnamese and Arabic, because there are not enough teachers to set up exam questions, said Oh Jong-un, an official from Haneul Education.

The unlikely popularity of these languages is because students are able to get higher grades for these subjects than for other subjects, he said.

Suneung has a nine-level grading system based on each student’s relative scores. Due to the low popularity of Arabic and Vietnamese, the cutoff score for the top grades tends to be lower than other subjects.

“Many students are taking their chance with Arabic because the cutoff raw score was much lower than Vietnamese in last year’s exam -- 23 to 48 -- which explains the sudden surge in its popularity,” said Oh. “Theoretically, a student who guesses all the answers in an Arabic test could get a level-five grade.”

The second foreign language was first implemented in 2001, and is mostly taken by applicants of humanities majors. But it is generally considered a minor subject by students as most top universities -- except Seoul National University -- allow students to substitute the subject with social studies, and a decreasing number of universities require students take it at all.

By Yoon Min-sik