This year’s grade 12 exams concluded with minimal cheating and corruption, according to preliminary reports. This is in contrast to recent editions of the exams where test-day bribery, plagiarism and leaks were common and broadly tolerated.
The benefits to society of this development are obvious and manifold. Students will apply themselves more to their study and will, in the process, obtain real skills and knowledge that will enable them to compete with peers within and beyond Cambodia.
In the absence of cheating, whether a student passes an exam is now determined by how much he puts into preparation – not how much money he can pay the proctors.
And, less tangibly but no less importantly, test takers – most of whom are just going from adolescence into adulthood – learn first-hand that money cannot buy everything and that passing by cheating has no moral worth.
The examination has not been without its critics, however.
Some argue that the test-takers were set up to fail because of the poor quality of education they received in their 12 years of schooling. These critics highlight problems such as an outdated curriculum; inadequate physical infrastructure; unqualified, badly paid and frequently absent teachers; and so on. It follows, they contend, that the no-cheating policy was overly hash – even unfair.
While they are correct in stressing the poor quality of education, the conclusion they draw about the recent exams is rather absurd.
Two wrongs do not make a right. Addressing poor education by turning a blind eye to cheating is like losing weight by tampering with the scale: No matter what the test scores or the scale reading say on paper, the students remain incompetent and you stay overweight.
The best way to deal with the substandard teachers and curriculum is to recruit and train better teachers and develop a better curriculum.
The national exam’s problems are ones that are both fundamental and entrenched. Continuing to tolerate cheating during exams contributes nothing towards a solution.
Furthermore, zero tolerance for cheating is more than about improving education quality. It is also about fairness: to those who work hard to prepare and to those who cannot afford to pay bribes. It is about ensuring that, all things being equal, an oknha’s son and a farmer’s daughter stand the same chance of passing the exams.
Though flawed, this line of argument brings out an important fact: it is not possible to improve education merely by introducing strict oversight of exams. Zero tolerance towards cheating, leaks and bribery is not a panacea.
The good news is that the no-cheating policy is only one of eight education priorities outlined by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport. The bad news is that, while it took a year to plan and implement a fair exam, it will likely take decades to raise the whole education system to an acceptable level of quality.
It is also important to remember that this encouraging development may well be short-lived. The last time we had a comprehensive no-cheating policy at a national-level examination was in the early 1990s, before many of the recent test-takers were born. A strong minister, Ung Huot, was at the helm of the Ministry of Education then, just as a strong minister, Hang Chuon Naron, is in charge now.
Back then, the policy was swiftly abandoned when the minister left his post. It remains to be seen whether this time around the policy will transform into something more durable and less personality-driven. This depends, first of all, on the success of efforts to strengthen processes and institutions that will outlive public figures. Secondly, there must also be buy-in from parents and other stakeholders so that this policy will evolve into a culture that will, in turn, grow into a habit.
Despite its shortcomings, the recent examination was by most measures a success. The minister of education and his staff should be congratulated for their convictions and efforts. Reform like this needs to be applauded, as it shows that deep-rooted problems can be solved with a combination of pragmatism and genuine political will. With acknowledgement and encouragement from us ordinary citizens, this good example may even spread beyond the education sector.