International Student Rights CenterAcupuncture examinees join students at UCLA to protest a Korean licensing exam that was almost entirely in Chinese.
After three years of school and two months of studying, Soo Kyung Ahn thought the acupuncture licensing test would be a breeze. She already had job offers lined up. All she had to do was pass.
But when she saw the test, she could answer none of the questions. They were almost entirely in Chinese.
Ahn was one of 112 students in February who requested to take the California Acupuncture Licensing Examination in Korean, one of three languages offered. Students say that at least 80 percent of the test, however, was in Chinese – a language most of them can barely read, if at all.
What began as an effort by the state to level the playing field between exams in different languages – and a belief that Korean students were taught Chinese in school – has sparked outrage among students who say their rights were violated.
The snafu has left many Korean students in legal limbo. Out of school and without licenses to work, some have been forced to leave the country as their student visas expire. Others are enrolling in graduate programs they do not want to take in order to stay in the country.
State law guarantees that students may take the licensing exam in Korean. At the testing site in Ontario, a proctor instructed students to answer what they could and mark questions they could not decipher on a separate, pink sheet of paper. Those questions would be credited as correctly answered, students said the proctor told them.
But the California Acupuncture Board has since graded the tests, counting all 200 multiple choice questions regardless of whether they were marked on the pink sheet. Just 33 students, 29.5 percent, passed – less than half the average passing rate of Korean test-takers over the past decade. The board says those who failed must take a new exam in August; it will waive the $550 testing fee.
"We can't pass individuals until they are able to demonstrate that they do in fact have the knowledge," said Janelle Wedge, executive officer of the board.
On the day of the examination, Wedge said, she told the proctor to have students mark questions they could not understand separately but never indicated the questions would be credited. The proctor denies telling students otherwise, she said.
Still, Wedge did not know what she would do with the pink sheets of unanswered questions. "It was just something I needed to have – on the spur of the moment decision," she said. "I didn't know what I was going to do with it."
The next month, in a letter to Korean candidates who did not pass, Wedge wrote, "the board felt an equitable solution would be to attempt to administer a new examination to those candidates who felt disadvantaged as a result of their inability to read the Chinese characters."
The board first considered administering a previous exam. But after realizing that students could purchase study guides with many of the answers from old tests, it concluded only a new test, in Korean, would do.
Students balked at the board's response. They want the board to credit questions in Chinese they could not answer or, if they must retake the exam, for students who took Chinese and English tests to do the same. They also want the board to implement policies and practices to prevent language access problems in the future.
With the help of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance and International Student Rights Center, they have sent letters and traveled to Sacramento to voice their concerns. They are petitioning for board members to resign.
'It wasn't a mistake'
The acupuncture board has offered its licensing exam in Korean for years. In the past, because some Korean words have multiple meanings, some parts of Korean tests included clarifications in Chinese or English. Wedge said this gave Korean test-takers an unfair advantage.
"It would give additional information the candidates in other language groups didn't have," she said, adding that higher passing rates among Korean language test-takers suggested an uneven playing field.
Nearly 12,000 people took the acupuncture licensing exam from 2000 to 2010. An average of 62.5 percent of those who took the test in Korean passed; 56 percent of people taking Chinese exams and 55 percent taking English passed. Among first-time test-takers in the past two years, 80 percent of candidates taking Korean exams passed, compared to 70 percent of those testing in English and 69 percent in Chinese.
International Student Rights CenterStudents who took the acupuncture licensing exam gather petition signatures at a Korean market in Los Angeles.
The acupuncture licensing exam takes nearly a year to develop. The test is crafted in English by licensed acupuncturists contracted to be subject matter experts by the Office of Professional Exam Services at the Department of Consumer Affairs.
Another set of acupuncturists refines the test, and yet another group of experts finalizes it, Wedge said. It is then translated into Chinese and Korean by acupuncturists familiar with the languages. The board does not see the exam before administering it.
When the state began crafting February's test, it replaced Korean with Chinese to eliminate the need for clarifications in other languages.
"It wasn't a mistake," Wedge said of the Chinese characters that comprised much of the Korean exam. "The belief was they did in fact learn (about acupuncture) in Chinese and it wouldn't have been something they didn't know."
Wedge said she visited the libraries of two acupuncture schools and that in the Korean sections, "the books were all in Chinese, especially when it comes to herbs." She said she could not disclose which schools because they were part of an investigation.
"Why the students didn't know this information when in fact they're taught it – maybe it's not emphasized," she said.
Courses not taught in Chinese
Interviews with students and acupuncture school officials suggest the Chinese language plays only a supporting role in the classroom.
Ahn, the student who could not read any of the test, said all her classes and textbooks at Life University in Gardena were in English. Although the school offered to teach some Chinese reference books outside of class, she said the materials were in simplified Chinese – not traditional, as it mostly was in the licensing exam.
At the University of East-West Medicine in Sunnyvale, courses in English, Chinese and Korean are taught separately with textbooks only in the language students select, said Jenny Chen, an accountant at the school.
About 70 percent of Korean students choose to take classes only in Korean at South Baylo University; others learn in English as well, said Henry Choi, the program student adviser. Some instructors teach and test students on Chinese characters for herbs or acupuncture points when such terms are difficult to translate into Korean, he said.
Students at Kingston University in Norwalk are encouraged to learn in English, though instructors speak Korean, Chinese and Japanese as well. Some required courses teach Chinese terms for historical and cultural context, but students answer tests only in English, said Rosalia Hsieh, a school administrator.
"It doesn't mean they have to really master the language," she said. "If you're an English speaker and you want to learn Chinese philosophy, do you have to go through learning the characters first before learning the philosophy? No."
People who took the Korean licensing exam and were able to understand Chinese tended to be from an older generation that learned it growing up or were students who studied Chinese abroad, said Danny Park, executive director of the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance.
Jinwook Ko, one of the students who failed the test, learned Chinese in high school more than a decade ago – not while studying acupuncture at Dongguk University in Los Angeles, he said.
"I really, really want to learn medicine; that's why I came here," he said. "I came here, studied hard. I studied really hard."
Ko said he tried to read the Chinese questions but couldn't understand everything, adding that each took him more than twice as long to comprehend.
"I have prepared for one year," he said. "If it were in Korean, maybe I could pass. Nobody doubts that I could pass."