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This year’s best students sacrificed sleep for good marks
This year’s best students sacrificed sleep for good marks Charlotte Pert

The real price of education

This year’s high school standouts were rewarded for choosing not to cheat

Despite a crackdown on cheating during the recent grade 12 exams, Nheang Bora still paid for his results – in sleep.

The 19-year-old – one of only 11 students out of nearly 92,000 to receive an A – had a study plan from the start of the year that left him with little rest.

After classes at Phnom Penh’s Bak Touk High School, from 7pm until 11pm, he focused on mathematics, physics, chemistry, Khmer and biology homework and then rose at 4am to study more subjects.

“I think my results show how much I invested through the year,” he said.

Bora said he realised in grade nine it was not possible to achieve the grades he wanted by cheating.

The cheat sheets bought by students to take into exams were normally incomplete and could not be relied upon to provide excellent marks.

“I wanted to gain something real from my study, and if I cheat during this exam, where will that leave me with my future education?” Bora said.

“I wanted real knowledge – not just an exam result.”

For those who were aiming for top grades, the cheating crackdown meant little
For those who were aiming for top grades, the cheating crackdown meant little Charlotte Pert

Post Weekend spoke to six of the 11 high achievers about their dreams and aspirations – and how they did so well when so many others failed.

All shared a solid work ethic. Some said they studied hard because they believed warnings from the teachers that the crackdown was coming.

Others – like Bora – figured they couldn’t rely on illicitly acquired cheat sheets to get the mark they wanted.

None came from families with a lot of money.

Chhive Seu Sang, who attended Hun Sen Serei Pheap High School in Kandal province and was raised by a single mother, said his background didn’t hold him back – it motivated him.

“I have had many difficult challenges in my life, but I never gave up, and now I have taken the first step to achieve my goals,” he said.

All were more interested in science, maths and physics than the social science subjects like history and Khmer, and all wanted to continue their studies in technical fields.

Gifts from the top

During a meeting at the Council of Ministers yesterday, Prime Minister Hun Sen showered the 11 students who received As in this year’s grade 12 examination with gifts.

He promised to provide each of them with a motorbike, a MacBook laptop, an iPod, extra study materials, $3,000 in cash and $100 a month until they graduated.

Additionally, those who lived far from their campus would get free accommodation. He also asked the students about the challenges they faced and for suggestions on how to improve the education system.

Chan Pichet, an 18-year-old from Presh Soramarith High School in Kampong Chhnang province who came first among all Cambodians at the Asian Physics Olympiad in Singapore and Kazakhstan this year, said he wanted to be a mechanical engineer.

“I would love to do a scientific major like medicine or engineering, but I am not sure which major I will choose, because if I have chance to study abroad I will go there,” he said.

Phang Veng An, a 18-year-old from Russey Keo High School, said he, too, wanted to be an engineer.

“I want to improve and develop Cambodia,” he said.

All agreed that the crackdown on cheating was a good thing for the Kingdom.

Inn Sreypov, an 18-year-old student from Samdech Chuon Nath Buddhist high school, said: “It is good that we can strengthen the education system like [we did] this year, because it has shown the quality of the students.”



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corbeyluv's picture

There have been many articles on the no cheating policy, teacher bribes and the effects of the new approach, however, I’ve not read anything on the degree of difficulty of these tests. My restaurant has two staff who are studying independently and with some tutoring to pass these tests as they, like many, had to begin working to support the family when they were high school age.

As a US citizen with a master’s degree, I was shocked when I reviewed some of their chemistry, math and physics questions. Admittedly, in the US we do not have a single comprehensive final exam like this, and students also “track” their high school classes in line with what they may want to study at the university level (i.e. I went on to do social sciences so did not take physics), but I did take chemistry and calculus. When I reviewed their study questions my immediate thought was that there was no way they could independently learn and pass these subjects. Even for current high school students, with teachers facing low pay and often inadequate training, a huge failure rate should be expected when they are getting tests with a degree of difficulty on par for the best Korean and Japanese students.

I would very much value a Phnom Penh Post article that examines the subject matter of these tests, specifically in the hard science areas where most of the failures are coming from. My preliminary thought is that the exam itself needs to be significantly rethought and brought in line with a reasonable standard. By all means, tests the basic maths and sciences, but reserve physics, calculus and high level chemistry as optional sections for students planning on pursuing these subjects at the university level. Those of us from wealthy countries had the benefit (usually) of schools with well trained, experienced teaches, full labs and lots of other additional resources and even then, rarely were our tests this hard. Perhaps one of the other problems in this situation is that the tests themselves are setting all but the very best students up for failure.

Derek Nicoll's picture

The prospect of a meritorious society is always good, that is, that rewards and status comes to those who can show that wonderful mix of talent, intrinsic motivation and the right resources to do the job. Even today the saying abounds in China that 'the only way a peasant leaves the farm is through the book'. Thus the enduring reverence for education in China and the modern institution of global Chinese Dragon mothers breathing down their children's necks during those elongated homework sessions. It actually relates to historical fact. Consider the genesis of the Chinese Imperial exam system which dates back to the mid-Tang dynasty (618–907 AD) was based on the meritorious idea. Theoretically, any male adult in China could sit the Imperial exam, regardless of wealth or social status. Passing meant the opportunity becoming a high-ranking government official and a real accolade for your own family and community. It served as a means of social engineering with a particular bent on maintaining cultural unity and consensus regarding basic values across the seven kingdoms. The uniformity of the content of the examinations meant that the local elites and political aspirants across the whole of China were inculcated with the same values. This drew China together and served as a social glue. In fact it can be argued that all entrance exam systems anywhere in the world are actually the progeny of the Chinese Imperial Exam. It was adopted by the British in their selections of bureaucrats for the Indian civil service, rife with cronysism at the time - "An appointment to the civil service of the Company [The British East India Company] will not be a matter of favour but a matter of right. He who obtains such an appointment will owe it solely to his own abilities and industry." So said the Macaulay Committee Report of 1854. The exam performed its job so well it came to be adopted by the domestic British Civil service itself. It was then taken on by the French and Americans as well as the Japanese and Koreans.

During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 AD) nearly half, about 47 percent, of those who passed the highest level examinations were from families with no official connections. This kept the mix of power elites healthily diverse. However, as we all know with high stakes exams - when only 2% of candidates passing, many spent their lives in pursuit of the elusive goal, struggling through repeats, others fall by the wayside or commit suicide due to extreme pressure and competition. It must also be recognized that although technically open to all comers, only those who had money for tutors and mentors, and did not have to toil all day in the rice paddies were those who could devote the necessary time and energies to the study. So not completely meritorious, the spectre of wealth and affluence enters the picture again.

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