Beginning with last year’s Grade 12 national exam, the Education Ministry put a stop to the time-honored tradition of teachers taking bribes to allow students to cheat on the test, drastically reducing the passing rate among students and the profit-making potential for proctors.
With this year’s exam set to begin on Monday, some teachers say they have capitalized on the ministry’s reforms by offering private test-preparation classes for students willing to put in the work to pass.
Nearly 60 percent of the roughly 88,000 students who sat for the exam last year failed after the Education Ministry enlisted the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) to help clamp down on cheating and bribery. In the lead-up to this year’s exam, the ministry has been offering free, weekend test-prep classes covering biology, physics, chemistry and mathematics.
Srin Heang, 50, who has taught biology at Preah Sisowath High School in Phnom Penh since 1991, said that at the beginning of the year, she decided to supplement her salary by tutoring Grade 12 students to pass the exam. She said she tutors 50 students every day before school, charging them $10 per month and adding $500 to her monthly earnings.
“I want these students to have more knowledge of the subject so they can pass the national exam,” Ms. Heang said earlier this month. “Some of them pay a lot of attention in [the Education Ministry’s] classes, but still have difficulty doing exercises because they only came to study in the extra class when the national exam was approaching.”
Like many other teachers offering private tutoring, Ms. Heang based her curriculum on the ministry’s weekend program, which she also volunteers for. She said she had never taken bribes from students.
Mr. Chhun, an English teacher who declined to give his full name for fear of incriminating himself, said he used to take bribes while proctoring the national exam, but had since turned to tutoring to boost his income.
“Before the [Education Ministry] reforms, teachers wanted to be proctors, not because they got much money from the assignment, but because they made so much money from the students” through bribes, he said on Monday.
Mr. Chhun explained that proctors who were more passive about soliciting bribes earned about $200 per exam season, while those who were aggressive could bring in $500.
“I made about $400 to $500,” he said of exams before reforms took hold last year. “Taking bribes during that period was systematic. Every teacher, proctor, director of an exam venue—everyone in the country—made money from this.”
Mr. Chhun said he believed that the ministry’s reforms benefited everyone involved in the exams, pushing students to study harder while providing teachers with opportunities to make money. He said he made an extra $200 per month from his test-prep classes and that his current income far outweighed what he used to collect in bribes.
In an interview earlier this month, Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron said he supported private tutoring as long as teachers were using material that would benefit students during the exam, which determines which students qualify to study at state universities.
“Maybe half the students are well prepared, and this year, we have seen that the students have worked really hard to prepare for the exam—more than last year—so the ministry’s message has gotten across to students,” he said.
The Education Ministry has said that officials from the ACU will monitor all 150 test centers during this year’s exam, as they did last year. Students who attempt to cheat by sneaking papers, smartphones or calculators into the centers will automatically fail and be barred from retaking the test for two years.
With the exam just days away, students’ anticipation is mounting.
“I don’t know whether I feel nervous or excited,” said Sotr Pisey, 18, who studies and takes test-prep classes at Chea Sim Boeng Keng Kang High School in Phnom Penh. “I am counting down the days.”
Another student, Soeun Bun Mey, 18, from Preah Sisowath High School, said she had also been taking extra classes, and felt ready for the exam.
“I think I am well prepared for the exam. I believe I will pass,” she said. “The [Education Ministry’s] voluntary weekend classes helped me, I think, because they review the main points of the lessons” that are expected to come up during the exam.
Roeung Sophorn, a math teacher and the owner of The Great A Plus School, a private tutoring center in Phnom Penh, said he was confident that test-prep classes could replace cheating as a method for passing the all-important Grade 12 exam.
He said, however, that the effects of the classes would not be appreciated for several years, and that this year’s results would be no better than last year’s—in which just 40.67 percent of students passed.
“This year’s students are too weak,” Mr. Sophorn said.
“They cannot do well in the national exam, because they have empty brains. I think maybe 60 to 70 percent will fail.”