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Meet the man behind the exams

Minister of Education Hang Chuon Naron talks to the Post from his office in the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport
Minister of Education Hang Chuon Naron talks to the Post from his office in the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport in Phnom Penh last week. Eli Meixler

Meet the man behind the exams

As most Cambodian grade 12 students prepare for a second crack at the national exam in the wake of abysmally low passing rates – three-quarters of students failed after measures intended to curb rampant cheating proved successful – the Post sat down with Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron, the official behind the exam reforms.

Given the results of the grade 12 national exam, do you regret implementing the reforms so quickly?
No. I think this reform has been thought through from one year ago.

Because I was informed before my nomination [as the Minister of Education, Youth and Sport], I had prepared the groundwork for the issues the ministry would need to address, identifying eight priorities:
1. The reform of personnel, meaning the qualifications of teachers and their salaries
2. Public financial reform at the ministry
3. The issue of education quality
4. A think tank to assist the ministry in policy recommendation and feedback
5. Higher education reform
6. Examination reform
7. Giving young people skills
8. Reform of physical education and sport

As you can see, examination reform is just one part of the whole package. From the beginning of the year, we announced that we were going to reform, but we didn’t need to increase the budget or to exceed the budget allocated. We wanted the support of the government to do the reform, so we decided to cut the budget for the grade 9 examination, delegating that work to the school level to reduce spending. We earmarked the savings for the grade 12 exam.

The top priority was the safety of the questions. Before, there were leakages of the exam questions. To eliminate this, we decided that only the top officials should be responsible for the exam. So, myself, I am responsible for the questions on History and Khmer language, plus English and French.

You wrote all the questions for those subjects?
No, no. I prepared the questions for two subjects, Khmer Literature and History. And then for English and French I had two people assist me, but I am responsible for endorsing them. Only two people knew for each, myself and one other expert. If there was a leakage, I would know who did it.

Another secretary of state was responsible for two subjects, geography and civic education. Then we have one other secretary of state responsible for mathematics, and then two directors responsible for physics, chemistry and biology.

So we have seven subjects. We had decided to reduce the number of subjects from the beginning of the year, we informed the schools that there will not be 10 subjects as usual, but seven only: six core subjects and one foreign language, either English or French. Why? To reduce cheating and give enough time for the students to prepare.

And do you think there was enough time for students to prepare?
You see, if they work hard, it’s not a problem. The idea is that once they pass from grade 11 to grade 12 they should know something, you know? It’s not that they don’t know anything yet they can pass their grade.

During the examination, I interviewed some of the school principals. They thought that the students at grade 12 didn’t believe that the ministry would be able to enforce the reforms, especially regarding the use of electronic equipment, their smartphones. They believed that there would be leakage of the exam and they would be able to buy the cheat papers. I think that shows a problem of no confidence in the public institutions.

Given how few students passed the exam, would you have done anything differently, or do you have any misgivings about how the reform was implemented?
No, I think this is for the future of Cambodia. Cambodia aspires to become a middle-income country, therefore the lack of good human resources is a problem.

We produce a lot of graduates that cannot find jobs; 73 per cent of investors think that our university graduates do not meet their demands, 65 per cent of them think that graduates from vocational training centers did not match their skill requirements. And, even though 95 per cent of the students at the high school [level] choose to focus on science, when they move up to the university level, they choose social science majors instead. This was a puzzle for me, but during the examination I can see that the pass rate for science, for mathematics, chemistry, biology and physics are very low. Overall we have 25.7 per cent of students pass, of which, 24 per cent were from the science track and 40 per cent from social science track. But because the number of social science track is only 5,000 students, overall the total is 25.7 per cent.

Why do you think most of the students opted for math and science??
I think that they were allowed before to check on their smartphones, so they choose that option because they thought it would be easier to pass.

You’ve been criticised by parents and some teachers for immediately getting stricter on the students without first getting stricter on your own staff and improving teaching quality – why did you choose this route?
Without addressing first the examination you cannot address any other thing. This is the first condition: to force the students to study. The problem is not teachers that didn’t teach. The problem is not that all teachers are corrupt; as usual there are honest teachers and there are not-so-honest teachers. But the results of the exam show that the students did not attain the required competency in their subjects.

Why do you think they didn’t attain that compentency?
They didn’t learn, they didn’t study. And so, if we do not address that problem, even if we spend more money on teacher qualification and increase the salary of the teachers, that will not result in the improvement of the education quality. This is the first measure, and then we have to implement the other measures. Without first addressing this trigger condition, we would waste millions of dollars, would waste the budget, to do something that will not lead to improvement.

On Friday, the prime minister met with the 11 Grade A students, none of them had any Facebook account, meaning that they spend time on studying, not on destruction. Also, the test showed that girls perform better than the boys, because the girls are less attracted by gadgets.

Do you think that given the current curriculum, number of teaching hours in a day and quality of teaching, that it's possible without extra classes or tutoring for students to pass the national exam? 
When we analyzed the exam score, there were a number of students who immediately but just barely failed. Around 30 per cent of those right below the pass rate have the potential to pass the exam if they work harder.

Some classes in grade 12 did not finish the curriculum this year. How could those students do well on the test? How will this problem be addressed going forward?
For that reason the ministry will review the curriculum to make it more compact for the students to focus on the main subjects, and we will strengthen inspection of the schools to make sure that all the schools abide by the regulation.

But given that some classes didn’t complete the curriculum this year, the curriculum the test was based on, how were those students expected to pass?
The problem is not that the subjects were not in the curriculum. The questions that were put in the test were chosen from grade 10, 11, and some parts grade 12. We chose the questions very carefully. We made the questions easier than the past five years. Just to pass, to get half the questions, was easy.

Why weren’t the test results curved so that the integrity of the anti-cheating reforms could be maintained while simultaneously allowing a larger number of students to pass??
For more students to pass, they must study; that’s why we allow them a second chance to learn their lessons, and if, they are good students, they can do well.

I used to teach both economics and international law at the Royal University of Law and Economics. The students even there didn’t have discipline; they didn’t come to their lectures. They asked questions, but they did not prepare for their lectures. I had to reduce the standards to allow for more students to pass, and even then, half failed. So the students don’t study. I think they value paper degrees, not knowledge. So we want to send a message that for Cambodia to compete with the region they have to be on par with other young people. And for Cambodia to develop economically, you need people who have more background in math and science.… Otherwise Cambodia will miss its opportunity. We cannot wait. If we wait for another five years, we will miss the opportunity of attracting foreign investment.

Why do you think a standardized test, such as the national exam, should be the method used for evaluating students’ educational performance?
The national test should be complementary to evaluations by teachers. If the evaluation can be improved, then the national test can be relaxed. That’s why I think that the condition and the quality of the teachers is very important. Finland does not have a national test, but the quality of the Finnish teaching is very high; they must have a master's degree or higher, and the best students, the top ten, they go into teaching. Traditionally, the society values teachers. Even for primary schools, their teachers must have master's degrees, while globally bachelor's degree is a good standard. But I think Cambodia, we have had the problem of war and genocide. You have to look at history. So in 1979, 80 per cent of teachers were killed. And once we began to rebuild the education system, initially we had only 10 years of education. And the training also, we had to recruit with very low standards. You have only three or four years of education, OK, you can train for one year and become a teacher. Later on, seven years' education and one year training to become a teacher. Only now, the standards is raised to 12 years education with two years' training to become a teacher.

Around $2 million will have to be spent on the retest, how can that money be added to the budget when teachers have been told there is not enough budget to raise their salary to the requested $250 a year?
From the outset, we said to reform the education sector we had to reform the costs at the ministry. With our cost-cutting measures, we were able to propose to the government to increase the salary of teachers. So the prime minister announce on August 21 that the salary will increase. So we will have from September the increase of the salary of teachers. The top teachers will get $200, the lowest teachers will get a 30 per cent increase, so their salary will be approaching $150.

In terms of the cost of the exam, we had a budget for the two exams, grade 9 and grade 12: We reduced the cost of one to top up the other. Even though we think we will spend $2 million for the second examination, where will the $2 million go? It will go to the allowance of teachers, some 26,000 teachers will monitor the examination. They will get more money, additional income.

How much money did you save by delegating the grade nine exam to the schools?
Around half of the grade 9 exam budget.

You spoken previously about the grade 12 national exam being a sort of diagnostic tool for the education sector. What were the three main takeaways from the exam, and how will you implement reforms to address that diagnosis next school year?
The first takeaway is our objective to improve the teaching and learning of math and science at schools. We know that this needs to be a top priority. Number two, is to focus on retraining teachers, especially in math and science. Number three is to accelerate school inspections to ensure that the curriculum is being delivered and the principals better manage the schools.

Some of the students are saying their future and a chance at higher education and a good career have been ruined by this exam, Can you comment?
What I want to say to them is that they should think about long term, not focus only on the paper certificate. Paper isn’t going to help them when they go to find jobs. They have to have knowledge so that they can compete with their peers in the region. Cambodia has to attract more investors, create more jobs, but we cannot create more jobs if we do not have skills. What we are doing is in their interests.

What do you think will be the long-term implications of the national exam reforms and so many students not graduating or going on to higher education this year?
They will have the second chance at the second national exam. Then they can repeat their class, and if you look at statistics, you have 84% of people who used to pass the exam every year, about 100,000 students, but every year you only have around 35,000 who go to higher education, meaning not all those who pass the exam go to higher education. So this time even grade E can go to higher education; they even get scholarships. So all-in-all, the results will not have much impact on higher education.

How long do you expect to see similar results in future years’ exam rounds?
It will depend how hard the students want to work.

Any other comments?
I was very conscious from the beginning that the examination system is just one part of my eight-priority education reform. But I know that I will be judged, not for the eight priorities, but by the success of the examination. People criticised that we didn’t have an action plan, but actually we have thought through very well even the smallest details, otherwise we could not organise this examination in such a way that has been accepted.

Do you think it has been accepted?
Broadly, it has been accepted. There are people who do not accept it, but overall, the majority, maybe 50 per cent plus, I believe have accepted it. They have to look at the future of the country and not be driven by the short-sighted, short-term implications. The future of the country depends on the future of human resources, no country can develop without that. But without good examinations system there’s no way to do that.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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