A year ago, a simple bribe would have allowed Sam Sophat* to walk into the grade 12 national exam with a broadsheet-sized compendium of answers, his smooth passage to higher education assured.
The decision to postpone, one that left him facing an exam taken under much stricter conditions, was one he rued yesterday.
“I count myself as really unlucky [that I waited],” said Sophat, 18, just before going into an examination hall in the capital at the start of the two-day testing period yesterday.
After years of rampant answer-selling, test leakage and bribery, students seeking their diploma this year have been warned that no irregularities will be tolerated. But as just over 93,000 candidates entered the exam sites, their pockets checked and phones taken away, threats of immediate failure and even jail time didn’t stop a few desperate pupils from trying to cheat their way through.
Proctors yesterday exposed three would-be test-takers as they attempted to sit the exam on behalf of others. Two suspects were arrested in Kandal and another in Svay Rieng, according to Minister of Education Hang Chuon Naron. The real diploma candidates meanwhile automatically failed and will be banned from taking the test again for another two years.
In Kampot, one brazen examinee snuck his smartphone into the exam hall and, while looking up solutions to the test questions, was caught by a monitor. The student found himself swiftly ejected.
“There were a number of students who tried to bring in answer sheets or phones,” said Kol Preap, executive director of Transparency International. “But the amount of students who were able to cheat successfully has significantly dropped.”
During last year’s tests, more than half a million dollars in bribes was funnelled to teachers in exchange for cheat sheets and leaked exam copies posted on Facebook, according to an NGO study.
This time around, however, Naron said that after limiting creation of the test to a small group of government employees, he remains “very confident” no leakage could occur.
Copies that did manage to circulate yesterday were declared by the ministry to be fakes. The Anti-Corruption Unit, which has been enlisted to help monitor the exam, arrested two print shop owners in Takeo after the pair allegedly tried to sell fake copies of five subjects, charging $100 for the bundle.
On a Facebook page called "This Year’s Grade 12 Exam", someone claiming to be an anonymous administrator put up an alleged copy of the chemistry test, but education officials likewise denied the authenticity.
“We are investigating the leakages to see if they are true copies,” said Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teacher’s Association, adding that he had heard a copy of the history test was also leaked in Prey Veng.
In line for the test at Chaktomuk Secondary School in the capital yesterday morning, 18-year-old Bopha* and her classmates discussed ways to smuggle in a cheat sheet full of equations. The candidates had to wait over an hour just to be admitted to the centre prior to the exam as the proctors and monitors checked student’s pockets and confiscated anything that wasn’t a ruler or pen, depriving them even of blank scrap paper.
Bopha managed to tuck the equation list into the waistband of her pants and quietly walk into the centre, but dared not run the heist any further; after discussing with her friends, she threw the sheet into a dustbin.
“It’s damn strict this year,” she said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY LAIGNEE BARRON
* Names changed to protect their identities.