High-pitched squeals of excitement continued to burst from 17-year-old Lay Malenpunareay long after she learned that she passed the grade 12 national exam on Saturday.
While studying until 11 p.m. each night in the weeks leading up to the exam and waking up five hours later to continue studying, Ms. Malenpunareay said that she listened to music to keep herself from becoming overwhelmed.
“I was scared that I didn’t get a very good grade, but when I first heard that I got a B, I hit the sky,” she said at Bak Touk High School in Phnom Penh on Saturday afternoon, shortly after the results were announced over a loudspeaker.
With 83,341 students sitting the exam on August 24 and 25, Ms. Malenpunareay was among the 46,560 students, or 55.87 percent, who learned over the weekend that they passed, making them eligible to enroll in a state university.
After the Education Ministry implemented reforms last year to eliminate the cheating and bribery that plagued past exams, the passing rate dropped to 40.67 percent. That rate was only achieved after a re-sit was offered to make up for the initial passing rate of 25.7 percent—the lowest since 1994.
This year, 108 students earned an A by scoring 90 percent or higher, according to a statement released by the ministry, up from just 11 students last year.
A further 1,085 students received a B, while 3,292 scored a C, 6,093 a D, and 35,982 an E—the lowest grade that counts as a pass.
Man Kota, 17, who studied at Bak Touk High School, had the highest score in the country this year, earning 100 percent after a curve. He said he had already begun receiving scholarship offers from universities.
“I am delighted with the result,” he said by telephone Sunday. “I expected to get a D or C, but when I saw the result, that I got an A, the highest score, that made me so very happy.”
“I think this year’s exam was easier than last year’s,” he added.
However, Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron said the higher pass rate this year was due to the grit of the country’s grade 12 students rather than changes to the content of the test.
“People say if more people pass then maybe we lowered the standards,” he said. “But we didn’t lower the standards, we just see the students working hard.”
But for the nearly 45 percent of candidates who failed, hard work had not been enough.
At Preah Sisowath High School in Phnom Penh on Saturday, four female students comforted each other after learning that they had all failed.
One nuzzled her head into a friend’s shoulder, tears streaming down her cheeks. She said she did not understand what went wrong.
“I do not know why I failed. Before I took the exam, I never stopped studying. The exercises were not so difficult,” she said, declining to give her name.
“Some people didn’t do as well as me, but they passed with a better score than me. Why not me?” she added, suggesting that her test was scored unfairly before returning to the embrace of her classmate.
Mr. Chuon Naron said his ministry had not received any official complaints about the grading process.
“I’ve been approached [via] Facebook, but on Facebook, I cannot do much because there are too many things,” he said. “I think we have to wait until they submit official complaints and then we can look at them.”
While Mr. Chuon Naron said he was happy with this year’s results, much more needed to be done to improve the high school education system.
“For one year, it is good to have this improvement made,” he said. “But it’s not enough.”