As the grade 12 national exam kicked off yesterday, the Ministry of Education said early indicators suggested a marked improvement on last year’s dismal results, though incidents of students caught cheating and others buckling under the pressure of the high-stakes test remained.
The two-day exam began on an optimistic note as Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron told reporters at Phnom Penh’s Sisowath High School that anti-cheating reforms first implemented last year were starting to take effect.
“This year, students are not trying to bring cheat papers or mobile phones into the room like they did last year. Social order has been maintained outside of the school,” he said.
“I believe that the students have been working hard for this moment, and I hope they will do well on the exam. I see a lot of improvements”.
In the past, answer-selling, test leakage and bribery were rampant in the high school exit-test, and the government’s crackdown last year resulted in an abysmal failure rate of 74 per cent.
On Sunday, students across the capital flocked to nearby pagodas to pray for success in the exam. Some prayed for an opportunity to cheat.
But amid threats of immediate failure and even jail time for those abetting, and with Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) officials and proctors surrounding schools and exam halls, most of the just over 87,000 students sitting yesterday’s test apparently accepted that cheating was no longer an option.
“It was strict inside the exam room, since we were all told to sit still and not even able to move around much,” said 17-year-old student Ly Navin, adding that she had seen no evidence of cheating.
Um Khema, a teacher at Chuk Va High School and veteran proctor for the annual exam, said the days of encouraging cheating were over.
“Before the reforms, sometimes teachers let students cheat if they thought that they had done their best [to answer what they could], but now it is policy that no one cheats,” she said.
In stark contrast to last year’s rampant failures, Khema predicted that 80 to 90 per cent of the students sitting their papers in her exam hall yesterday morning would pass.
“We can see that in 2015, students have tried harder to study compared with 2014.”
But, despite the strict measures, old habits proved difficult to resist for some.
Dara*, a student at Chaktomuk High School, showed off two cheat sheets on which he had scribbled equations that he managed to sneak into the exam.
“I brought them in my pocket hidden inside my money and they [the proctors] didn’t notice,” he said. “About 10 per cent of students brought cheat sheets inside the room”.
But, Dara claimed, under the eagle eyes of the proctors, it had been impossible to use the cheat sheets.
“Sometimes we asked each other answers quietly without turning around, but the proctors made us stop,” he said.
ACU chief Om Yentieng said other incidents of cheating included one boy attempting to take the test on behalf of his brother.
“Because they look similar and he was a hard-working student, he was forced by his elder brother to sit the exam,” he said.
The younger brother, who is due to sit the test next year, was asked to write a letter of apology, while the elder brother will be banned from sitting the exam, he added.
In Sihanoukville, Yentieng said, a proctor had broken ACU rules by trying to take the test himself in an alleged effort to see how well he would do in the exam.
“He was trying to write down the questions on the board so he could test himself to see if he could answer the questions, but this is wrong, so he was fired immediately”.
Aside from cheating, 1,431 students registered simply failed to show up yesterday, according to Education Ministry spokesman Ros Salin.
Others, he said, had fallen ill under the pressure.
“Nineteen students received first-aid during the exam because of feeling nervous and dizzy, but they were helped and continued until they finished.
There was also a female candidate who was sent by ambulance to the hospital at the end of today’s exam because she was too nervous and tired. But they are all fine now.”
Despite any blips on the first day of the exam, Salin said preliminary checks of the papers by exam monitors had indicated a “surprising result this year: most of the students have done well”.