Young people descended on Phnom Penh’s religious sites yesterday, seeking blessings and collecting purportedly holy waters in the hope of giving themselves an academic edge in the national university entrance exams that start today.
More than 100,000 Cambodian high school students will take exams over the next three days that determine whether they can continue on to higher education, but with pressure on students mounting and allegations of answer-selling and impropriety, students and observers alike fretted over just how much test takers’ results will come down to studying.
Student Ol Sreyneang and her friends from Hun Sen Bun Rany Chbar Ampov High School brought incense sticks, lotus flowers and fruit to offer to the deities at Preah Ang Dongker – a public shrine on the riverside – in return for good luck on the examination.
Despite being the most outwardly confident of her seven companions, Sreyneang said that “now, I am a bit scared, so my friends and I come here to worship Preah Ang Dongker to help us on the examination day to pass together”.
In a display that spoke to the huge amount of importance placed on the exam’s outcome, the group took photos together, and promised to all remain friends forever – even if some of them failed.
Kim Heng, a student from Chroy Changvar High School, jostled to collect reputedly sacred water from around Preah Ang Dongker. Heng averaged about 65 per cent on his last two exams in the science subject – a field he focused on because of his desire to study engineering.
Given that those scores will be averaged with his results from tomorrow’s test, he said, he was confident he could comfortably clear the 50 per cent threshold for passing.
However, he added, there are other factors.
“In fact, now I am a bit nervous, but I claim that I will pass the examination if there is no corruption,” he said.
Unfortunately, there probably will be corruption and plenty of it, said Rong Chhun, head of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association teachers union.
According to Chhun, reports were already coming in of proctors soliciting money from parents in return for copies of the tests’ answer keys – $30 for five subjects, and $100 for 10.
Chhun said he had also received word from Battambang and Kampong Chhnang provinces of under-qualified proctors being selected to monitor test takers.
“What we are worrying about that corruption, the correction of the exams [by proctors] and teachers selling answers to the students in the class while they are taking the exams, will destroy the quality of our education [system],” he said.
However, Ung Ngo Hok, deputy chief of the examination office at the Ministry of Education Youth and Sport, cautioned students against falling for such teachers’ claims, saying that the contents of the exams were still confidential.
What’s more, he added, guidelines had already been announced for dealing with teachers engaged in any exam-day malfeasance.
“We have already punished teachers and educators under this [Education Law] before.”