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A tale of two school tests

A teacher guides students through exercises in Phnom Penh
A teacher guides students through exercises in Phnom Penh last month. This year’s national exams will see students sit for either a science or a social science-oriented test. Pha Lina

A tale of two school tests

Hard and soft sciences don’t mix, or at least won’t on this year’s upcoming grade 12 national examinations, for which students will have to choose: history buff or lab rat?

This August, students hoping to qualify for a diploma will sit for either a science or a social science-oriented test, according to a Ministry of Education directive.

The latest national exam alteration is part of a series of reforms meant to stamp out rampant cheating. By dividing the test into two tracks, the ministry intends for students to feel less overwhelmed as they will only have to prepare for seven subjects, down from the previous 10.

“It was too many subjects for the students to study, and we want to encourage studying hard rather than cheating out of desperation,” Minister of Education Hang Chuon Naron said.

Both test tracks will include Khmer literature, mathematics and a foreign language. The social science test will also contain history, geography and civics, while the science test will have chemistry, biology and physics.

The grade 12 students will still be expected to take classes and pass end-of-semester examinations in all 10 subjects, and in order to make sure exam sitters don’t only focus on the material in their chosen test track, the ministry is adding a seventh subject, which it will reveal just 30 days before the two-day national test.

“I am good at math, so I picked the science track, but I will have to work hard in every social science subject too, because … we won’t know which subject out of the school year [will be chosen for the seventh test],” said a 17-year-old from Balang Hun Sen High School in Kampong Thom who declined to give his name.

Education experts worry the mystery test subject, which is worth up to 50 out of the combined 525 points, won’t carry enough weight and will keep students from paying attention in some classes.

“Cambodian students mainly focus on the sciences, and so [this test reform] could mean social sciences will not be much valued anymore and students’ critical thinking will not improve,” San Chey, coordinator at the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability in East Asia and the Pacific, said.

The Education Ministry also announced that this year upper secondary school teachers will be responsible for writing end-of-semester exams, rather than receiving ministry-issued tests.

“If teachers write the test themselves, they could go easier on their students and write a test that does not reflect the class’s capacity. I still support the test coming from the ministry,” said Ty Bunleng, 59, a Kampong Cham high school teacher.

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