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Students leave Bak Touk High School in Phnom Penh last year during the nationwide exam period
Students leave Bak Touk High School in Phnom Penh last year during the nationwide exam period. Hong Menea

National testing could widen

Cambodia may soon have new standardised exams to hold its students, teachers and education system accountable.

“Everyone agrees that the improved enrolment rates in primary school is an accomplishment; at the same time, everyone also calls for quality-control improvement … [which] means better testing,” said Jan Noorlander, program coordinator at CARE Cambodia.

Now, Cambodia lacks the national standardised-test frenzy endemic in other Asia-Pacific countries like Korea, Japan and Singapore. Learning outcomes are measured by teacher-created monthly tests and end-of-semester exams, a process that stakeholders say has little to no oversight and is riddled with cheating, discrimination and inconsistencies.

National, ministry-issued exams take place only in grades 9 and 12, when students can attain diplomas for lower and upper secondary school completion.

But Minister of Education Hang Chhuon Naron is intent on expanding learning achievement accountability. Last fall, the ministry issued its first nationwide assessment to a representative sample of students in grades 1, 2 and 5, testing their knowledge of Khmer literature and mathematics.

“Before, there have only been small-scale studies by development partners,” he said. “But we want to be able to take policy measures and then monitor if learning is improving or not.”

The ministry is discussing how to expand the national testing to the secondary school level, with eyes on repeating the assessment every three to five years.

The ministry isn’t the only one interested in evaluating learning outcomes – education donors have long argued that proxies in lieu of national assessment, such as UNESCO’s use of primary school survival rate, offer extremely limited pictures of education quality.

“We are advocating for an effective assessment of learning achievements to strengthen the evidence base that learning is indeed taking place,” said Santosh Khatri, UNESCO Cambodia education program specialist.

The argument for monitoring education quality extends to better oversight of the classroom testing teachers use to assess and promote students as well.

“It’s completely up to teachers to determine who passes and who fails,” said San Chey, coordinator for Social Accountability in East Asia and the Pacifc. “Standardised tests would help avoid discrimination and nepotism, as well as bribery, with some students buying a passing grade.”

Though school-based technical working groups are meant to monitor test quality, teachers say there is no oversight to ensure equal standards between schools, districts or provinces.

“It doesn’t matter if you give monthly tests or not,” said Hak Chamroeun, who teaches grade 12 English language in Battambang.

But Chamroeun advocates that standardising all tests won’t offer a cure-all.

“It would be good to have benchmarks or input from the ministry, but teachers are the ones who know their students’ abilities and should be the ones writing the tests,” he said.



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