As the new public school year gets under way this week, grade 12 students reeling from en masse failure at the national exam have a choice to make: repeat their grade or forfeit their diploma.
Despite the wide scale failure rate, grade 12 repeaters are anticipated to be the exception this year. Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron expects just 10 per cent of the unsuccessful diploma candidates to file back into their classrooms.
“Based on prior year’s experience, very few students retake their grade,” he said.
However, last year, when less than 4 per cent of grade 12 students were repeaters, 87 per cent of the national exam sitters had passed.
This year, even a lenient, second-chance round earlier this month failed to provide reprieve to students ill-equipped to handle the reformed and corruption-free exam.
In total, just 33,997 test-sitters, or 40.6 per cent of the high school graduate hopefuls, managed to pass the high-stakes national exam in one of the two rounds. The remaining 55,000-plus candidates, or the majority of this year’s diploma seekers, flunked the two-day exam and are now ineligible for bachelor’s degree programs and face limited employment opportunities.
In Phnom Penh, where students had the greatest access to private tutors and other academic resources, only 2,383 testers managed to nab a pass on their second go, according to government figures.
“I was so shocked when I heard that I failed the second exam. Now I am worried about what’s going to happen with my future,” said a grade 12 student from the capital who said that he was too embarrassed to give his name.
Several of the failed students said they intend to avoid any further exposure to the humiliating test, and will elect instead for a back door into university through associate’s degrees, which are two-year preliminary college programs .
“I don’t want to waste my time. I don’t know if I will pass next year’s test,” said another of the failed candidates from Phnom Penh who will instead endeavour on the six-year bachelor’s degree route.
But educators worry that this path will perpetuate long-standing problems where under-qualified graduates are unable to back up their paper degrees in the job market.
“I would not encourage [students] to move on until they have focused on learning the fundamentals. Repeating their grade and re-sitting the exam is the best option so they can have adequate academic competency,” said Education Minister Naron, adding that students loath to repeat their final year of high school could independently prepare for next year’s exam or opt for vocational training.
If students ill-equipped to handle high school can still file up the ladder of higher education, the validity of the ministry’s reform crusade could be undermined, said Chin Chanveasna, executive director of the NGO Education Partnership.
“What is the use of reforming the exam if students are just going to bypass it?” he said. “Students need to retake their grade or have similar alternatives if the quality of [educational attainment] is going to improve.”