Cheating during this week’s high school baccalaureate exams is a symptom of an arbitrary schooling process that overvalues memorization and test scores, experts said. They did not expect the situation to change before September’s junior high school exams.
“People believe performance on exams is absolute,” said Richard Geeves, education specialist at World Education, an NGO that collaborates with the Ministry of Education. He said cheating is “fairly commonplace.”
Since Cambodia has far more primary school students than high school students, exams also help determine which students continue their public education. According to Ministry of Education statistics, Cambodia has 2.4 million students in public primary schools and 105,000 in upper secondary schools.
Students are in a situation where their entire educational careers depend on their exam results, Geeves said Thursday. Furthermore, the exams’ difficulty varies immensely from year to year.
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association, said cheating was particularly flagrant this year because education officials were concentrating on the election.
Another factor that could have aggravated the problem is that, for the second straight year, the baccalaureate exam doubled as the college-entrance exam.
World Education has approached similar problems in other countries by suggesting students take open-book exams. But Geeves said Cambodian education focuses on memorization, “not thoughtful answers or well-crafted argument.”
“Cambodians would see open-book exams as a contradiction in terms,” he said.
Tran Panhcharun, assistant program manager at World Education, said that when he took his baccalaureate in the early 1980s there was less cheating, since the country was so poor that there was little perceived advantage to scoring well.
He said this began to change around 1986 when those students who did not pass the exam were drafted. “People were afraid to be soldiers, so they tried to find ways around it.”
The cheating, he said, continued as opportunities arose for the educated.
Rong Chhun said that cheating tactics have advanced from bringing cheat sheets into class to talking by telephone to relatives who have copies of the answer sheets.
“Ministry of Education officials have ignored the telephones, even though we have suggested that they intervene,” Rong Chhun said.
Ministry officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday and Thursday.
Geeves said students also bribe, intimidate and harass exam proctors, who are usually teachers. He said the ministry has countered that relatively well by moving teachers to different schools to proctor exams so the students don’t know which proctors are susceptible.
The system, Rong Chhun said, is unfair “to poor students who have studied hard for the exam.”
Students will learn “that it’s not important to study, because if they only save money to buy the answer sheet, they will pass the exam.”
Geeves was less alarmist. While he admitted that the current system favors rich students, it should be expected in a developing country where cheating “is a manifestation of general malaise.” Despite it, “people tend to get the results they merit,” he said.
Besides, he added, some of the answer sheets bought from hawkers “weren’t 100 percent accurate.”