Eighteen-year-old Sothea* wants to go into business, and already he seems to have a network: the group of boys hanging around his motorbike at the entrance to his high school in Phnom Penh.
This week, they are in a flurry – these Grade 12 students are headed for tutoring classes in preparation for the national exit exam, which for some will enable them to apply to university.
On Monday and Tuesday, Sothea will be one of 93,752 students sitting the Grade 12 test in an environment that changed dramatically two years ago when the Ministry of Education brought in sweeping anti-cheating reforms. Its effects are still being felt: 55 per cent of Grade 12 students passed last year; the year before the reforms were enacted, 87 per cent passed.
For his part, Sothea has been taking things seriously: private tutoring sessions, studying using mobile-phone apps, and working at home with last year’s exam that his teacher gave him. But he’s still worried. As he speaks, he takes frequent peeks at his watch.
“For now, I don’t even know whether I’m going to pass, let alone what grade I will get,” Sothea says. “I expect 50 per cent.” That should do it, though: students need a score of at least 237 from a maximum of 500.
Ros Salin, spokesman for the Ministry of Education, says this year’s procedure will be much the same as last year’s. That means monitors in each classroom, completed exams locked away and names removed from answer sheets before grading. The exams are designed to measure students’ abilities.
“The level of difficulty of the test is the same [this year],” Salin says. “The one who has knowledge will pass.”
In 2014, amid sweeping measures to prevent widespread cheating – patdowns, the prohibition of phones and paper, and the presence of monitors, observers and even officers from the Anti-Corruption Unit – almost 60 per cent of students failed, even after many sat a later re-test.
This year, says Salin, teachers will also be watched: they won’t be allowed to carry phones when they are marking papers, and they will be barred from posting answers or exam papers to Facebook. Security will remain high, too, with at least three physical checks for “contraband”. Breaking the rules means automatic failure.
“The police will surround the exam centre,” Salin says. “The Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) is responsible for sending observers to each one.”
Some fear that it’s an unfair distraction.
“When it’s too strict, it breaks the concentration,” says Bopha*, another Grade 12 student. In previous years, some students feared even shifting in their seats.
“If the observer takes a picture of students during the exam – even if they’re really good at studying – they will be distracted by that,” Bopha adds.
The measures that Sothea will encounter are unknown to his three older siblings; he is the first in his family to take the “no-cheating” exams. His sister, a translator, passed in 2010 without cheating, he says. Yet he also fears the heightened security.
“I don’t want many observers to stand [up front], because it pressures the students to write faster,” he says.
The reforms were meant to address a longstanding cheating culture, including selling answers, leaking tests, and paying bribes to teachers (a practice that remains commonplace in classrooms across the country). In their wake, the private tutoring industry – whose tutors are often public-school teachers – has boomed.
Sothea says more Phnom Penh students now use private tutors – both on campus and in study centres – than before the new restrictions took effect.
“Before the restriction period, normal students just went to school and came back home. They didn’t study much, because they knew they were going to pass,” he says.
That seems to have changed: Post Weekend interviewed six students from five Phnom Penh high schools; all say they attended at least a few private classes this year. Some started preparing before the school year began.
At Chey Thavy, a large centre near O’Russey Market that caters to high-school and university students from across the city, tutoring costs just 1,500 riel per hour (about 40 cents). The centre offers 40 classes a day, with between 50 and 200 students packed into each classroom. The walls are lined with schedules that lay out sessions from morning to evening.
Registrar Kim Lalen says attendance for national-exam tutoring at the centre shot up in 2014, although it has dropped off a little this year. She attributes the dip to rumours that restrictions might be lightened this year.
“[Some students believe] they might be able to ask each other questions [during] the exam,” she says.
Others aren’t taking chances. On one morning this week, Chey Thavy was packed. Students completed sample tests in the cafes that dot the street.
Just 100 metres away, a young man peddled previous exam copies on a table in the shade. For just 7,000 riel (about $1.75), a Grade 12 student could pick up past tests and answers from 2002 to 2014. (One student, Kanha*, says she has completed the exam from the last three years multiple times.)
Sokheng*, a Grade 12 student with aspirations in graphic design, says he spent 6,000 riel a day at the centre over the past month in preparation. His experience contrasts greatly with that of his sister, who took the national test in 2012.
“Everyone cheated during those exams, so my sister cheated, too,” he says, adding that he is not envious that his sister had that opportunity. “I just wish the exam would be easier – it’s so strict, it makes me nervous.”
Study centres like Chey Thavy – like the system of bribery itself – raise questions about the role of privilege in passing the exam, not least because poorer students cannot afford such help.
Female students can be at a disadvantage, too: one of the students Post Weekend spoke to said she was worried she would not pass the exams, but said her parents forbade her to leave the house to attend tutoring classes.
Sothea says he works hard and feels that ought to give him licence to take formulae into the exam hall.
“For someone who just tries hard to study like me, I think that it is a good idea to take in some [maths] formulae,” he says. “What if I forget some part?”
Plenty of his friends, he adds, are going to try. Sokheng, who attends a different school, agrees.
“I think some people will cheat this year,” he says.
Asked whether he would cheat, Sokheng is quick with an answer.“Tik tik,” he replies with a laugh. “Maybe a little bit.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities.