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Students check their final exam results at Sisowath High School in Phnom Penh last week
Students check their final exam results at Sisowath High School in Phnom Penh last week. Only a quarter of the country’s grade 12 students passed. Heng Chivoan

Breaking down the tests

Grade 12 students collectively struck out on this year’s high-stakes national exam, with individual results reflecting an even more dire drop than educators expected.

But while data released Friday showed that just 25.72 per cent of students received a passing score on the two-day, seven-subject exam, more in-depth statistics posted a day later on the Education Ministry’s Facebook page showed that some provinces fared significantly worse than others.

In Kampong Speu, the worst-performing province, just 16.8 per cent of students achieved a passing mark of 47 per cent or higher, according to the ministry. In both Battambang and Kandal, more than 80 per cent of students failed.

In an unforeseen turn, urban centres didn’t necessarily outperform rural schools. Phnom Penh students managed a pass rate above the national average, 33.1 per cent, but were shown up by Preah Vihear, the top-scorer, where 39.3 per cent of students secured a pass, and Pailin, where 36.4 per cent were proficient.

“Based on where the most resources are focused or the teaching quality is the highest, the provincial cities and the capital should have done better than the rural areas, but that wasn’t the case,” Education Minister Hang Chhuon Naron said. Part of the explanation for the discrepancy, he added, was that many more students sat for the test in Phnom Penh, 16,794, than in Preah Vihear, 1,555.

Others suggested that the disparity in score was more correlated to the urban-rural wealth disparity.

“The students in Phnom Penh and some of the provincial capitals are from better -ff families and have been used to a system where for years they could do well by bribing the proctors,” said Chin Chanveasna, executive director of the NGO Education Partnership. “It’s a good message to parents and students that they can’t just pay to pass anymore.”

Education officials for months predicted a giant drop in exam scores resulting from the government’s crusade to stamp out formerly rampant cheating and corruption during the test. Last year, 87 per cent of students passed.

Continuing an existing trend of female students outperforming their male counterparts, 29.4 per cent of female students passed, while just 18.5 per cent of the larger number of male candidates did.

With fewer high school students passing the exit exam, which qualifies students for a diploma and entrance into higher education, this year’s potential body of freshman has dwindled, with just 23,126 public school students able to qualify for university.

“The results will definitely affect our admissions,” said a staff member from Techno, a public school and an arm of the Royal University of Phnom Penh.

In addition to passing the national exam, students hoping to nab a spot at Techno also have to pass the school’s qualifying exam. But students who didn’t pass the first grade 12 national exam and are throwing their lot in with October’s retest won’t be able to sit Techno’s September entrance test.

“Normally, we have 700 to 800 incoming students each year, but this year we’ll be lucky to have 300 to 400,” the staff member said. “It’s a problem because we won’t have enough money to support our professors and staff if the class sizes continue to be smaller.”

At University of Puthisastra’s Faculty of Health Sciences, students also have to pass a college-specific entrance test, but the administration is discussing delaying the exam in order to be able to recruit enough students, an administrator at the school said.

Though universities, parents and students are all panicking about this year’s poor national exam results, the education minister insisted that the reforms are not only positive, but necessary.

“We knew that the education system needed improvement, but there wasn’t a lot of info on the subject and province distribution of performance. With this learning assessment, we have a clearer idea of what to focus on,” Chhuon Naron said.

“Our objective is to produce more qualified students … and it is in the interests of the universities also to have quality learning, not just to serve as a degree factory for students with no real ability.”

In response to this year’s exam results, the ministry plans on revising the curriculum for the upcoming school year to reduce the number of lessons, as well as increasing school monitoring to ensure both teachers and students are coming to class and following the books. But some say the slew of reforms is side-stepping a more important issue.

“In order to improve education quality, we must not only have strict examinations … but the most important point the ministry has to accomplish first is a reasonable salary for teachers,” Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association president Rong Chhun said.

Prime Minister Hun Sen last week announced a pay boost for teachers to be implemented from September until April, but educators warned that the salaries will still not be on par with living expenses.

Several education studies have linked poor learning outcomes and fewer teaching hours in Cambodia with low teacher pay, including an NEP report last year that listed teachers’ salaries as the top education concern among parents.

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