On the eve of the grade 12 national exam students across Phnom Penh put down their revision notes and flocked to local pagodas and shrines yesterday, praying that they will pass the high-stakes test – and that the proctors will let them cheat.
With testing starting today, the desperate prayers came a year after radical reforms to the exam – which used to be rife with corruption and cheating – saw abysmal results, with 74 per cent of students failing.
This year, Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron said he is hopeful of a better outcome.
“When the reforms came last year, most of us were still in the habit of cheating, which made a lot of us nervous not to cheat.
The national exam this year will be easier than last year because students have been taught to be ready for this moment. I believe they will do well.”
But students interviewed yesterday didn’t share the minister’s optimism, with many choosing to spend their final hours praying that the reforms aren’t implemented.
At the Buddhist sanctuary Preah Ang Dorng Keur on the capital’s riverside, dozens doused themselves in holy water, burned incense, released birds and gave lotus flower offerings in a last-minute bid to have fortune on their side in the dreaded exam.
“This is the second time I’ve come here,” said Hek Chin Sou, 19.
“I’m wishing that I pass the exam; I don’t care about what grade I get. I’m praying that I meet good people who let me copy their answers.”
After lighting incense, 18-year-old Chheng Sodavon said she, too, hoped to cheat in today’s exam.
“I prayed that all the teachers and observers are good and not too strict.
I hope that if we cheat in a small way, like reading each other’s answers, they will let us.”
Despite this being the second year of the reformed exam, Sodavon – who, like many students interviewed, holds down a job as well as studying – said she thinks it is still too soon for anti-cheating measures to be implemented.
“I’m so jealous of the older people [who could cheat]. The reforms should have been slower.”
However, with pledges of even tougher measures this year, many students’ prayers of cheating are likely to go unanswered.
In addition to punishments for proctors caught selling answers and accepting bribes, Chuon Naron said cafes and photocopying shops next to schools – where cheat sheets regularly used to be exchanged – will be shut down for the duration of the two-day test.
Heang Lang, who runs a photocopying shop next to Sisowath High School, said he welcomed what he saw as an extra public holiday, despite having profited from cheat sheets in the past.
“People would come here with sheets of answers and sometimes I would photocopy them and sell them to the students,” he said.
“This year, students have only come to make copies of their lesson notes.”
Inside the high school, many said the strict reforms had made traditional methods of cheating impossible.
“Even if I could buy a copy of the exam, one night isn’t enough time to learn all the answers,” said one student, as he prepared to pray at a pagoda.