Waiting in the courtyard of Phnom Penh’s Sisowath High School, 18-year-old Yang Poumony smiled as she clutched her pencil bag early on Monday morning, counting the minutes until the start of the national high school exam.
“It’s very nerve-wracking and also exciting,” she said.
The two-day exam that determines university eligibility is high stakes for the 93,752 students registered to take it. Following a 2014 reform to overhaul a faltering education system, it’s also taking place amid heightened security.
Students entering the testing grounds are patted down in search of smartphones, cheat sheets or calculators, in stark contrast to years past in which answer sheets could be bought and proctors could be paid to turn a blind eye.
In the first year, the passing rate fell to 41 percent, confounding students, parents and teachers. But an increase in the success rate to 56 percent last year was widely seen as an example of students and teachers making the necessary improvements.
Knowing she could only count on herself, Ms. Poumony said she studied from morning to night in preparation for the exam, unlike her older sister, who took the exam a year ahead of the crackdown.
“It still had corruption, so she easily passed it,” she said. “I think it’s a bit unfair, but if I can pass this test, I know I’m quality enough to be in society. So I don’t think I’m jealous of her.”
Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron, who oversaw the exam’s reform, told a reporter at the high school that even students who fail this year’s exam “deserve to get praise.”
“I think this year, we can say the students are much better than last year,” he said, citing the absence of “big bags” that had been used in past years to smuggle in cheat sheets. “This year, we have not seen that.”
“My finding is that the reform is going in the right direction,” he added. “There’s pride for us all.”
Yet the first day of exams was not flawless. Photographs posted to the ministry’s Facebook page on Monday showed notes folded like accordions and tucked into eraser cases, English-Khmer dictionaries and printed study sheets that officials had collected.
Two students from Kep province were caught with “hidden cheat sheets” inside the exam room and recorded as the first offenders of the exam regulations, while another student turned in a mobile phone he had sneaked past guards, ministry spokesman Ros Salin said. None will face criminal charges—as threatened by the ministry—because their wrongdoings were discovered before the test began, he said.
Nine students had “health issues,” but were able to complete the exam, he added, while 1,207 were no-shows.
Ouk Chhayavy, acting president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association, said the stress of the day was exacerbated by volunteers from the government’s Anti-Corruption Unit, which has been commissioned to monitor test takers and proctors.
“It seemed like our teachers were hostages that had to be watched,” she said. “Some students have shared similar comments. They said when there are too many, it makes them scared.”
Aspiring medical student Rathso Vithy said he also felt the tension of the long-awaited event.
“Oh my god, it’s like really, really pressuring, especially since I started to work harder at the beginning of grade 12,” he said.
Teachers had worked tirelessly to prepare him for the test, he said, and he hoped to “make them proud.”
Poring over study sheets covered in sample history questions, Toeuk Solida, 17, sat around a shaded table with her older sister and three friends at Phnom Penh’s Preah Yukunthor High School on Monday.
“I’m writing them over and over to try to remember,” she said, shortly after the premises had emptied for a lunch break. With chemistry and biology behind her, she said, she felt a slight sense of relief. “But for tomorrow, I’m a bit scared.”
But not all students were feeling the stress.
“I did not prepare,” Rong Pharith, 19, said with a laugh as he waltzed in the front gate of Sisowath high in the morning. “I will pass, grade A.”