SEOUL - South Korean officials on Monday launched an investigation into cram schools after a cheating scandal that led to the nationwide cancellation of US college entrance exams earlier this month.
The education office in the capital Seoul started the special probe into a number of private academies suspected of illegally obtaining questions for the SAT test and offering them to pupils, a spokesman told AFP.
The administrator of the SAT -- the most widely used test for applying to US colleges -- scrapped the scheduled May 4 exams after discovering questions were already circulating among some test-prep schools.
The College Board also cancelled subject tests in biology scheduled for next month.
"The moral hazard prevalent among some SAT prep schools has reached a serious level," the Seoul education office said in a statement, criticising school operators for "tarnishing the national reputation and harming innocent applicants".
Those cram schools discovered to have leaked questions will face closure as well as special tax audits, with the owners banned from opening new schools for a certain period, it added.
According to the Institute of International Education, South Korea sent 72,295 students to study in the US in the 2011-12 school year -- the third largest provider of foreign students to US colleges after China and India.
Cram schools for global tests -- not to mention domestic college exams -- are a lucrative industry in education-obsessed South Korea, where qualifications from top colleges are crucial for careers and even marriage prospects.
For nearly all their school lives, South Korean students study late into the night -- often at costly, private cram schools -- to stay ahead in the race for admission to top universities.
The entire nation holds its breath on the day of the domestic college entrance exam in November, when military training is suspended and flights rescheduled to ensure the test is conducted quietly and smoothly.
The cancellation of the SAT exam at the beginning of May prompted a flood of soul-searching editorials in the national press.
"This incident reveals the dark side of our education culture that has no qualms about cheating even at an international level," said the Kookmin daily, which called the scandal a "national shame."
The JoongAng Ilbo said such incidents were bound to be repeated given the number of students and parents "apparently willing to sell their souls if they can boost test scores".
The crushing pressure on students is blamed for dozens of suicides every year, and the latest scandal is not the first to involve the SAT exam.
In 2007 some 900 South Korean students had their SAT scores annulled after it emerged that a number had seen the questions in advance.
In 2010 a teacher at a Seoul cram school was arrested for smuggling SAT questionnaires out of a test held in Thailand, and sending them to his pupils who were scheduled to take the same exam hours afterwards.
A Seoul law school student was also charged in May with helping applicants cheat on the TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication), using high-tech gear including micro cameras and earpieces.
The student hired an English teacher to take the test and send him answers via a tiny online-connected camera. He then re-transmitted the answers to earpieces worn by his clients taking the exam.
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