Armed with incense sticks, lotus flowers and birds to free, the nation’s grade 12 students packed pagodas yesterday, looking to luck as a last resort on the eve of their second and last chance to pass the high-stakes national exam.
More than 68,000 students are registered to retake the university qualifying test over the next two days. In August, less than a third of Cambodia’s grade 12 students managed to net a passing score and collect a diploma.
The new minister of education has made it his crusade to end rampant cheating, leakage and bribery that in years past reliably allowed most students to sail through with no studying needed.
However, the cleaned-up version of the exam – complete with government police patrolling the test sites and thousands of monitors ready to punish graft – left only 11 of the frisked students able to manage an A grade.
The abysmally low scores produced under the anti-cheating measures revealed what educators have long suspected: Students aren’t retaining much from their 12-year mandated education. The results also prompted the prime minister to call for an emergency second round this month, a plan costing the government an extra $2 million, or, roughly enough to give every teacher in the country a $50 bonus.
“The Ministry of Education has budgeted expecting that all students who did not pass will retake the exam. In doing so, I think they will be spending much more than they need to be,” said San Chey, coordinator for social accountability group ANSA-EAP.
In addition to shelling out for the second exam, to help boost the students’ score, the ministry sponsored what were supposed to be free refresher courses on the four subjects students fared the worst in: maths, physics, biology and chemistry.
According to the Education Ministry, 383 high schools offered the five-week course, and just over 31,000 students attended, or half the students registered to write the seven-subject exam.
The students who attended the government-sponsored cram sessions attested that like any extra classes in the public school system, these came with a fee.
“To learn, you must pay,” one grade 12 students put it yesterday, adding that the test prep cost her and her classmates 1,500 riel per hour.
“It was to remind us what we learned in school but it was better because it was based on what was in the first exam with practice sheets from the ministry,” she said.
However, the extra studying sessions still weren’t enough to give the student, who asked to remain anonymous, and her friends enough confidence to head into the test today empty handed.
As they lit candles and splashed their heads into holy water at a religious site on the capital’s riverside yesterday, they also discussed different ways of smuggling cheat sheets into the exam centre.
“I’ll hide it in a secret place,” one of the girls said. Another suggested she’d stuff a copy of the practice questions in her shoes.
To prevent any such irregularities, the Education Ministry has recruited even more independent observers for the second round of the exam, in addition to the teachers brought in as proctors and the Anti-Corruption Unit police who will be stationed at each exam centre.
“I think it will be impossible for students to cheat,” said Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron.
“And I hope students are now convinced that we are serious about preventing irregularities and that there are implications for any attempts.”
But the students at the riverside pagoda yesterday promised they wouldn’t be coming unprepared with whatever might help them seize a passing score.