When Sambath Vibolroth earned an A on Cambodia's toughest high school exam last month, her reward was a meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen, who offered her a free motorbike, money, iPad, and laptop.
The gifts bestowed on Ms. Vibolroth and 10 other Cambodian teenagers resulted from the fact that they were the only students to receive top marks on the final exam that seniors must pass to complete high school and attend university.
But the majority of Cambodia's students flunked. About 75 percent of the 90,000 test takers across Cambodia failed the exam, held after a crackdown on rampant cheating. The results were so dire that the test will be repeated in October.
Last year, 87 percent of students passed and about 200 earned A's. This year the government held tests under strict conditions, using extra monitoring staff, and threatening serious consequences for anyone caught cheating.
Those moves are part of a larger drive to fix the education system in Cambodia, where young people make up a sizable percentage of the population, but more than half leave school before graduation, according to the International Labour Organization.
Educators and students here describe a cheating system that, fueled by technology, low teacher salaries, and lax oversight, was out of control.
Before the new initiative, students could pay their teachers to see the test in advance. They could work in groups. Using their smartphones, they snapped shots of leaked test pages and circulated them around within minutes. Around crunch time, exams would go viral.
“The result is that if they pass the exam, it comes from the cheating, from the fraud, from corruption,” says San Chey, a fellow with the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability in East Asia and the Pacific, a nongovernmental organization that works on education issues in the region. This year, “we can say that the result is acceptable. It is a clean examination.”
After national elections last year, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party shuffled its top officials around and installed a new minister of education, who made test reforms a top priority. The ministry dispatched thousands of additional monitors from the government's Anti-Corruption Unit to ensure that the exams were clean, bringing the number of staff overseeing the testing days to more than 20,000.
Phones weren’t allowed in the rooms. Neither were calculators. Math questions had to be figured out by scribbling on scrap paper.
The extra precaution wasn't without controversy. Khieu Kannara, a Khmer literature teacher at Vibolroth’s school, said the reforms were necessary, but that the beefed up security may have shaken students and negatively affected their performance.
“The observation from the corruption team was good, but it was too much because when the students moved, they took pictures of the students,” she said. “For example, the student drops a pen, then they took a picture and shouted to the teacher to look at the student. So this gave both advantages and disadvantages, because it was interrupting the student’s feelings.”
One senior at the same school, who didn't pass and therefore requested not to be named, said she had trouble concentrating. During the test, she brushed her hair behind one ear. The gesture attracted the glare of one monitor, who eyed her suspiciously and took a picture.
“There were two teachers inside the class and three or four people standing outside the classroom,” she said, adding that doing math without a calculator was “so hard.”
'It was a success'
Most students who leave school early do so for economic reasons. Poor students who stay on remain disadvantaged come test time. Their families can't make the common informal payments that could help them gain an upper hand.
Education officials, therefore, believe they have leveled the playing field, and dismiss suggestions that they overreached.
“It was a success,” Ros Salin, the spokesman for the Ministry of Education, said of the reforms. “Now, most of the students, they change their mindsets,” and are taking the test more seriously.
Because of the reforms, those who flunked will get another shot at passing in a retest in October. The government is enlisting A students like Vibolroth in the fight.
She’s being paid $5 an hour to tutor students five times a week, two hours a day. One thing her new job has given her is perspective. She knows how hard it is to be a teacher. In her classes, the students are “very worried.” What they may not know is that the feeling is mutual.
Speaking in her new role as teacher, she says that, “I worry that I didn’t cover all the lessons and the exam [covers] that part I didn’t talk about.”