The Republic of Korea’s experiment with outcomes-based accountability

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This blog is written by Pearl J. Chung, Education Specialist for the Korean Ministry of Education, the author of a case study on accountability and education in the Republic of Korea commissioned for the 2017/8 GEM Report. The blog is part of a series showing that accountability in education is shaped by a country’s history and political, social, and cultural context. 

Background: The Republic of Korea’s education system

In the Republic of Korea, the central education authority has had a major role in the decision-making process setting standards for primary, elementary, and secondary education. At the municipal level, Metropolitan and Provincial offices of education and local offices of education have been managing budgets and school facilities. The government began to grant more autonomy to local offices of education and schools in the 1990s, as it underwent a process of democratization. It now supports the development of a localized curriculum. The Ministry of Education has also decentralized decision-making process with regard to the implementation and organization of the national curriculum. However, some see this as a strategy not to empower schools but to control them. In reality, the central education authority has carried out policies with little input from other stakeholders. In addition, teachers, by law, are to follow the national curriculum and use centrally recognized and/or approved textbooks for teaching and learning.


Accountability is part of the Korean education system, generally used to improve the quality and outcome of education. In particular, key actors in education (e.g. central education authority, local offices of education, superintendents, educators, and students) are held accountable through parliamentary hearings, inspections, and/or evaluations. One of the contentious issues is its outcomes-based accountability system, which links incentives to test results to improve educational outcomes. This blog explores how the notion of outcomes-based accountability has emerged and transitioned in Korea and looks at its current status and implications.

Education reforms to promote outcomes-based accountability

q1The Republic of Korea started to put more emphasis on accountability in the 1990s. The Presidential Commission on Education Reform (PCER) adopted a comprehensive education reform plan called the Education Reform Proposal (ERP) in 1995, which included a call to improve accountability in education. In the proposal, words often used in economics such as autonomy, competition, diversity, and ‘consumer need’ were included for the first time.

In 2008, the Lee administration dramatically increased outcomes-based accountability. The ‘Zero plan for below-basic students’ was launched to guarantee zero percent of students with low academic performance and thereby enhancing Korea’s educational competitiveness.

The major shift centered on the national standardized test. The sampling method was converted from a sample-based (testing 3-5% of nationally representative sample of students) to a census-based test. It allowed the central education authority to assess all students in grades 6, 9, and 11 in five subjects (Korean, social studies, mathematics, science, and English), publicize school performance by proficiency levels (e.g., advanced, proficient, basic, and below-basic), and designate low-performing schools as ‘Schools for Improvement’.

The ‘Schools for Improvement’ were given financial support to run academically q2oriented classes to move students out of the below-basic proficiency level. As part of incentives and sanctions, schools with significant achievement on the national standardized test were lauded as exemplary schools, whereas teachers in low performing schools were excluded from promotions.

The comprehensive effort by the government and schools significantly reduced the percentage of students with below-basic proficiency (Elementary, 2.3% in 2008 to 0.7% in 2012; Middle, 10.2% in 2008 to 3.3% in 2012; High, 8.9% in 2008 to 3.4% in 2012).

UNesco6 FFF.jpgOn the other hand, scholars and educators found side effects of the outcomes-based accountability system such as neglect of non-tested subjects, teaching students to the test, and deskilling of teachers. Incidences reported that many teachers did not fully understand the policy yet had greater pressure to enhance students’ academic performances, which resulted in teaching intensive courses on test-taking skills, fabricating results and, in some cases, intentionally excluding students from taking the test.

Education reforms to scale back outcomes-based accountability

Due to teachers’ push back on the outcomes-based accountability system, the Park administration scaled down outcomes-based accountability through new policies in 2013. The move was also encouraged by students’ low happiness in school, heightened competition, and high participation in private tutoring or cram schools leading to social polarization. The changes included abolishing the national standardized test for elementary students and reducing the number of tested subjects to three (Korean, mathematics, English) for grades 9 and 11. The central education authority introduced a more holistic, competency-based education that alleviates students’ exam-related stress, and supports them in exploring their talents and aptitudes. It brought new changes in practice; for instance, the ‘Free Semester’ was implemented to offer middle school students one semester of experience-based learning without having to worry about exams.

National Standardized Test in Korea (1998-Present)

Year Administration Test sample Tested grades
1998-2003 Kim Dae-jung Sample-based (0.5%-1%) 6th, 9th, 10th
2003-2008 Roh Moo-hyun Sample-based (1%-3%) 6th, 9th, 10th
2008-2013 Lee Myung-bak Census-based 6th, 9th, 11th
2013-2017 Park Geun-hye Census-based 9th, 11th
2017-Present Moon Jae-in Sample-based 9th, 11th
UNesco19FFF - Kid with booksSince the Moon administration’s inauguration in May 2017, the educational policy and agenda appear to focus more on the process of education rather than its outcomes. The administration is also working to further decrease outcomes-based accountability. Recently, the central education authority announced it would end the census-based national standardized test and convert the teq3sting method back to the sample-based test (testing 3% of nationally representative sample of students in grades 9 and 11). Test scores are not publicized nor used to sanction or reward schools at any level of education. In addition, local offices of education are granted greater autonomy, having the authority to make decisions on conducting the national standardized test. The ‘Free Semester’ is being extended to alleviate exam-related burden.

Korea’s attempts to use accountability as a means to improve education quality, not as an end in itself

q4The change in the Republic of Korea’s approach to accountability means shifting gears towards promoting students’ holistic growth in an already exam-oriented society, developing students’ competencies through student-centered instructions to move away from the traditional pedagogical practices, and encouraging students to find their creative talent in the face of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In addition, the Republic of Korea appears to be moving in the direction of using accountability as a means to improve education quality, not as an end in itself. The question now remains how accountability will be translated and practiced in schools to produce sustainable  improvements.


  1. Involve all education actors who implement education policy, especially teachers, when designing education reform.
  2. Collaborative cultures could be set up in place of outcome-based accountability in order to reinforce academic success, in particular for students who struggle academically. This would involve using growth-oriented assessment and feedback for teachers and school leaders.

2017/8 GEM Report recommendations

Global Republic of Korea
Governments must make the right to education justiciable in national law, which is not the case in 45% of countries. The right to education is not justiciable in national law.
Governments should be transparent about the strengths of weaknesses of education systems, opening policy processes to broad and meaningful consultation and publishing a regular education monitoring report. The Republic of Korea has produced a national education monitoring report since 2010.
Governments should develop credible and efficient regulations with associated sanctions for all education providers, public and private, that ensure non-discrimination and the quality of education.
Governments should design accountability for schools and teachers that is supportive and formative, and avoids punitive mechanisms. The Republic of Korea uses test scores to sanction or reward schools.
Governments should fulfil their commitment of spending at least 4% of GDP on education or allocating 15% of total government expenditure. The Republic of Korea has reached one of the two financing targets for education spending 5.1% of GDP (over 4%).

See the full set of blogs in this series



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