SAMRAONG TONG District, Kompong Speu – The education minister’s message for students finishing high school has been heard loud and clear since the reform of the national completion exam four years ago: Merit will buy you a pass grade—not money.
“So for students who study hard, they will get better results this year,” Hang Chuon Naron, the minister, said on Monday morning before launching this year’s exam at Preah Sisowath High School in Phnom Penh.
But it’s not quite as simple as that.
For many students here in Kompong Speu province, it seems the price of the reform is a high one, leaving many families poverty-stricken.
“My daughter told me that in the public classes, the teachers do not pay much attention,” said Uch Vorn, 50, a farmer waiting anxiously outside Hun Sen Chambak High School in Samraong Tong district’s Voasar commune for his 21-year-old daughter to complete the first of the two-day exam.
In order to be equipped with the knowledge and skills to pass the test, she and the majority of the 101,410 registered exam-takers paid for extra courses after school hours, in which teachers provided detailed explanations and extra coursework—sometimes withheld from their state curriculum, students said.
Mr. Vorn spent $25 a month sending his daughter Uch Sokha to extra courses over the last year. On a good month, this was a third of the family income. On a bad month, it was half. Other families reported spending $50 to $150 a month on the classes.
“It’s unfair for the poor who cannot afford extra courses….They should have increased the quality of the class instead” of merely cutting corruption from the exam, Mr. Vorn said.
Families in the provinces often have to take out loans to pay the fees to get their children through the exams, according to one expert.
In 2014, the Education Ministry cracked down on rampant cheating and bribery in the annual test that decides who is eligible to carry on to university.
Before then, proctors were bribed to turn a blind eye, exams were for sale and parents helped their sons and daughters take cheat-sheets into the room to pass the exam. With the ministry determined to end the practice and threat of legal charges hovering over those who flout the rules, students are mostly playing it straight.
If they don’t, volunteer Anti-Corruption Unit officials are on hand to oversee both the pupils and their observers, and strict measures are in place even before the kids get to the school to take the exams.
Students arriving at Sisowath High School this morning were patted down and had their pencil cases and shoes checked for any hidden cheat aids.
After a dip in the first year of the reform—pass rates took a dive from 80 percent to 26 percent, though they rose to 41 percent after retakes—the number of students hitting the pass mark has climbed slightly higher each year. Last year, 62 percent of students passed.
But for Mr. Vorn, and parents like him who are struggling to get their children through the exam, the reform was “a big shortcut, and it’s not a good one.”
Ouk Chhayavy, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association, said Mr. Vorn’s pain was shared by a large majority of rural families, who were less likely to be able to handle the financial pain than urban families.
“To support their children in the extra class expense, most of the parents in rural areas need to apply for a loan from a microfinance institution to make sure their kids pass the exam,” she said, echoing student reports that teachers withhold key materials during regular course hours.
“But who knows if they are actually going to pass it or not,” Ms. Chhayavy added. “This is a double burden for the poor families who can’t even afford their basic foods.”
For some people, the cost of time alone is too much.
“I wanted my daughter to stay in school, study hard and focus on the exam,” said Oak Yim, 42, between slurps of noodles at a street stall across from Voasar Primary School in the same commune, where her daughter was taking the exam. “But my daughter wanted to help relieve the financial burden, so she went to work at a garment factory.”
Ith Reaksa, 22, failed the exam last year, having been unable to afford any extra courses. Now, she takes study materials to the factory with her and pores over them during breaks.
Ms. Yim is desperate for her daughter to escape poverty with a high school certificate.
“But I don’t know how much I can hope for her, because she has no time to study,” let alone the money for extra courses, she said.
Neither Mr. Chuon Naron, the education minister, nor ministry spokesman Ros Salin could be reached for further comment.
But students across the board said without the extra tuition, they had little confidence in their ability to face the exam.
“Without extra classes, I couldn’t even take the exam. I couldn’t handle it,” said Hun Sreyleak, 17, outside Hun Sen Chompou Vorn High School on the edge of Phnom Penh in Pur Senchey district. “There are so many practical exercises in the curriculum, but the teachers don’t give enough coursework to learn it, so you need extra classes.”
“If you don’t take extra classes, you have no hope on the exam,” another student Ouk Dara, 17, echoed.
In the city center, the word was the same.
“Teachers during regular classes are not very attentive and do not explain the lessons clearly. I usually understand better in extra classes,” said Mov Vorak, an 18-year-old candidate from Russei Keo High School, who paid more than $100 a month for extra courses. “This would be affordable for a wealthy family, but not for a poor one.”
But according to Som Sophally, 47, a primary school teacher picnicking outside Hun Sen Chompou Vorn High School with her daughter, Yok Lang, 17, who had just finished the first day of the exam, extra courses were par for the course.
“It’s the national exam year, so you need to enhance your studies and take extra classes,” she said. “My other children also studied extra classes before the exam.”
Next month, when the results are released on September 12 and 13, the students and their families will find out whether the money, time and effort has been worth it.
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