Police guard the school ground of Sisowath High School on August 8. Some students still managed to throw cheat sheets across the fence to their waiting classmates.
Multiple choice question # 1: Which of the following explains why rampant exam cheating
and bribery are making a mockery of Cambodia's education system?
- (a) teachers are profiting from it
- (b) students see no shame in cheating
- (c) the government says the problem does not exist.
Sadly, the answer is all of the above.
During the national high school exam period from August 6-8, some 60,000 students
competed in the annual rite for grades and ultimately university placement. Over
the three days, cheating became so pronounced that the Ministry of Education ordered
armed police to patrol Phnom Penh's school grounds during testing.
Officers cordoned off campuses with police tape and patrolled school grounds and
fences for accomplices attempting to throw or pass "cheat sheets" to students
Guns and guarded perimeters appear to have had some effect- just over half the students
questioned said government efforts had hampered their plans to cheat.
However, it was business as usual at many late-night copy shops.
Earlier this week, the streets of Norodom Boulevard were blocked throughout the night
by students waiting to purchase answers for finals. The shops turned a brisk trade
peddling the latest answers.
According to one late night copy shop client, each page varies in price depending
on the class, but the average cost is around 500 riel per sheet.
"The problem is you don't know if you get the right information or not,"
he said. "You just have to wait and find out."
Despite the request for police assistance and other contradictory evidence, Ministry
of Education officials on August 8 refused to admit that cheating exists.
"We cannot make comment before we have a meeting," said the Minister of
Education, Kol Pleng, "but [these allegations] are nothing new. The allegation
of cheating on exams happens every year, but in reality there is none."
But an informal survey conducted by the Post found that 96 of 100 high school students
questioned had cheated on exams in their lifetime.
Some said the sheer prevalence of cheating meant they were left with no option.
"Because some lazy students cheat on exams, they will get a high score. So,
all hard-working students also have to cheat on exams. If we don't cheat, we'll get
lower scores than lazy students," said one respondent.
Others said the schools themselves were lacking in quality and honesty.
"Teachers teach a little, but sell a lot," said one young student.
Another said corruption is now so commonplace in schools that cheating had become
a practice passed from one generation to the next.
"Most of the schools aren't strict enough, therefore students are never afraid
of cheating on any exam," said another.
One secondary school teacher, who also works as an exam controller, explained that
for wealthy families buying a pass is easy. According to the teacher, who did not
wish to be named, A and B grades have a fixed rate of $2,000 and $1,200 respectively.
The cost of a C is negotiable but generally costs $700-800.
"It's easy to arrange for a diploma," he said. "The candidate, or
their parents, just give the name and class number and pay the respective amount
prior to the examination. The candidate needs to sit the exam but they can draw a
picture on it if they like. The result is a guaranteed A."
A and B grades are the most commonly purchased, as they guarantee university placement.
Around 10 percent of students at his school buy grades, the teacher said. But cheaper
methods are common. The answer sheets that so many students line up throughout the
night to obtain are easily smuggled into a classroom. Though to use them the controller
of the exam must be paid "to close their eyes."
Candidates pool around 2,000 to 4,000 riel per subject and give this to the two controllers
employed to monitor cheating, one exam controller said. The students are not forced
to pay but in every class they inevitably do. It happens in almost every school but
the Ministry of Education never find out because the money is shared throughout the
faculty to ensure silence, he said.
"It is difficult to say how I feel about this cheating that goes on," he
told the Post. "Our salaries are so small we are forced to do this to earn a
living, but as a teacher I am not happy to do this."
Theary Seng, director of the Center for Social Development, expressed little faith
in the Ministry's promised crackdown as "the problem runs too deep."
"Cheating is ingrained in both students and teachers," she said. "Socially,
cheating is just another form of corruption. It's a reflection of the larger context
of society. Cheating at a student level makes it difficult for us who are working
against corruption because it becomes ingrained at an early age."
Seng said that exam cheating in schools is harmful not only to the students who cheat,
but those who do not, as it casts doubt on their honesty, knowledge and ability.
"Nationally it puts everything into question," she said. "We question
our own degrees, qualifications, and education system. It creates a suspicious society."
The answer is not only tougher exam monitoring, but paying better qualified teachers
a decent salary so they can concentrate on teaching, rather than finding subsequent
incomes, said Seng. Attitudes also need to change at home, she said. Parents need
to understand that encouraging their child to cheat is harmful to them.
But it appears students are given little choice.
One foreign teacher who has taught in various countries for the past 34 years was
appalled by how casually her students discussed cheating when she first began teaching
in Phnom Penh three years ago.
"I've asked every student I have taught in this country if they cheat and they
always reply, 'yes of course I do. Everyone does. You have to,'" she said. "There's
a power in numbers. If everyone does it, it must be OK."
She added that Cambodia's education system lacks a professional, strictly monitored
exam system making it impossible to cheat. More importantly, she said, teachers need
to prepare their students properly prior to exams, eliminating the need to cheat.
The students spoken to by the Post agreed, but also said the ultimate responsibility
lay with those in power. But perhaps a Chinese proverb puts it best, "The schools
of the country are its future in miniature."