Eak Yuthea Reak went to Bak Touk High School in Phnom Penh on Friday clutching a small piece of paper inscribed with seven names.
He was there to collect the national exam results of a group of friends who couldn’t bear the stress of finding out their scores in person.
“I have to be the strong one to collect the results because my friends cannot control their feelings and stay calm,” said Yuthea Reak, 17.
With the result of this month’s exam to dictate who goes to university and who gets left behind, the hundreds of students who did gather to hear their fate were understandably nervous.
Nationwide, 23,126 of 89,937 candidates passed the exam, the Ministry of Education announced on Friday, although only students in Phnom Penh and Kandal received their individual results.
The overall pass rate of 25.7 percent is the lowest since 1994, when just 12 percent of 20,829 students passed, and the third lowest since 1979.
In Phnom Penh, 5,570 of 17,260 candidates reached the pass mark of 47 percent. In Kandal, 1,848 of 9,540 candidates passed.
Nationwide, just 11 students achieved an A grade by scoring better than 85 percent.
“I am surprised by the results,” said Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron, who was responsible for overhauling a national exam that has long been fraught with cheating and corruption.
“But the positive is that the results give us lots of information about how to improve the education system. We have known that the system needs fixing—when we analyze the results, we can see exactly where.”
At Bak Touk, Yuthea Reak listened for the results of each of his friends as if they were his own. Almost halfway through his list, he was three for three. All passes.
After each successful grade was called out, he made a phone call to deliver the good news.
“I will call each one to tell them after I hear the grade,” he said. “But they will also come to the school when the results are posted later to see themselves.”
But when his list had its first failure, student number 478, Yuthea Reak’s tactics changed. Down on his knees, it was as if he had failed himself.
“I don’t want to call to tell him he failed,” he said. “Who passed, I already called but who failed, I will say nothing and wait until they come to see for themselves.”
One student who was on the scene to hear that he had failed was On Chan Pheaktra.
Chan Pheaktra wasn’t too flustered, however, as he had the safety net of a second round of exams, which Prime Minister Hun Sen announced would take place after it became apparent that the 2014 pass rate would leave universities empty in 2015.
“I failed, but there is nothing I can do about it because the result is already decided,” he said.
“ I will try hard to study for the second exam.”
Education Minister Mr. Naron explained Friday that the second exam would focus on the “four most important subjects”—Physics, Chemistry, Math and Biology.
He said that revision lessons would be uploaded to the Internet and that the ministry would hold free study classes for students ahead of the October re-sit.
“All students are eligible to take the second round, except those who committed fraud [at the first exam],” he said.
As proceedings drew to a close at Bak Touk, Yuthea Reak pumped the air and squealed as his C grade was read out. But just next to him, 18-year-old Hong Kim Hap’s identical result brought him to tears.
“My parents were hoping I would get a grade B. I got a grade C,” he said through tears.
Still, Kim Hap’s C is enough to get him into the Cambodian University of Health Science, where he plans to study to become a doctor if he can pass a specialized entrance exam.
“Before I can get accepted to study there, I have to pass another exam first,” he said. But he said he was confident that his innate intelligence would carry him through the next round of testing.
“I was really surprised I got the C, because I’m really smart,” he said of Friday’s results.