Cambodian school system is still failing its students

Exam results! Who passed? Who missed out? In 2014 just under 40% of Grade 12 students passed their exams. How do we lift that?

Exam results! Who passed? Who missed out? In 2014 just under 40% of Grade 12 students passed their exams. How do we lift that?

Just prior to this month’s water Festival festivities which have made a welcome full-scale return to the Cambodian holiday scene, the Ministry of education, youth and sport released figures showing an extremely poor success rate for those high school students re-sitting their exams.

The Ministry has been making good progress over recent years to ensure that a greater percentage of Cambodian young people have full access to schools, and they have been working hard to lower the student to teacher ratio which is one of the highest in the world. The MOEYS website has impressed me for laying out the facts and figures of the successes, or challenges facing the education sector in Cambodia.

For one of the key performance indicators, the pass rate of students re-sitting their grade 12 exams –  those students who didn’t quite make the grade at the first attempt – is troubling. a lot of attention was being paid to this KPI because the pass rate for the grade 12 exams was down steeply compared to 2013 results. From the Phnom Penh Post:

Just 25.72 per cent of students passed the exam, the Ministry of Education officially announced yesterday, a result lower even than the dismal 30 per cent figure predicted by Prime Minister Hun Sen in the aftermath of the two-day test earlier this month.

The exam – usually rife with corruption and cheating – had been hailed as the cleanest in many years, thanks to a determined crackdown by the ministry, which deployed thousands of monitors from the anti-corruption unit to enforce strict regulations.

By way of comparison, 87 per cent of students passed in 2013.

The crackdown on cheating is a good thing, and so was the opportunity the government gave 90,000 Cambodian students to resit their exams if they missed first time.

Some 30,000 of these did not bother re-sitting however, but presumably the other 60,000 felt they had some chance. Here’s the report from the Phnom Penh Post.

Just 18 per cent of more than 60,000 hopeful students who re-sat the grade 12 national exams earlier this month have passed, according to official results released yesterday.

No students scored A or B grades, while one student scored a C grade. A total of 55 students received a D grade while the vast majority – 10,815 students – passed with the lowest E grade.

The 17.94 per cent pass rate was lower than the first tests in August, when a government blitz on cheating and corruption brought a dramatic drop from an 87 percent pass rate in 2013. Some 25 per cent passed the first round this year.

Prime Minister Hun Sen personally intervened to announce a re-sit for those who had failed the all-important exams, which are essential to pass for most university degree courses.

Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron, who is spearheading reforms, said yesterday that despite the lowly scores, the re-test was “worthwhile”.

“Even though we made a big effort to help students, just a few more students passed,” he said yesterday.

“[But] in terms of extra spending and the extra effort, it was still worthwhile because we helped more than 10,000 pass.”

Naron also said the dismal results for the second exam were “logical”, as the country’s top students had already passed during the first round.

“If [the percentage of students who passed] was higher than last time, we’d be very suspicious,” he said.

At Preah Sisowath High School in central Phnom Penh hundreds of students morosely listened to the announcement of results broadcast by loudspeaker yesterday afternoon.

“It’s not an easy year for me,” said an 18-year-old female student that declined to be named after learning she had failed.

“I knew that this would happen because I’m not a good student. Even though I tried to study hard this past month, I still couldn’t do any better than before.”

The crying teenager said she would have to repeat grade 12 again.

But for the few who succeeded, celebrations were ecstatic.

Lok Chanvisal, 18, who passed with an E grade, cheered and jumped around with his friends before quickly calling his father to pass on the good news.

“I was trying so hard in the last month and I never went out with my friends like I used to do,” he said, adding that he was ready to re-ignite his social life, starting last night. “It’s time for Halloween [partying], which coincides with our success.”

Education watchdogs, however, were critical that the government shelled out $2.5 million to organise the re-test, given that hardly any students passed.

“Allowing all the students who failed [to re-sit] was a waste of government budget. There should have been criteria so students who scored too low the first time [just] failed and did not get a retry,” San Chey, country coordinator for social accountability group ANSA-EAP, said.

“The scores indicate we should have great concern for the quality of education in Cambodia.”

CNRP whip Son Chhay, who also serves as deputy head of the parliamentary commission on finance and banking, said the government’s move was “very positive”.

Chhay added that he believed $250 could be reached well before 2018 if reforms were expedited. Getting civil servants back on side was “a question of survival” for the CPP, he said.

But unions representing public workers yesterday had no praise for the government.

“Why do they have to wait until 2018?” said Rong Chhun of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association.

Cambodian Independent Civil Servant Association head Kao Poeun said: “Despite the recent raises, their salaries are still low, so they won’t provide citizens with good public services. They will still try to make money through corruption.”

The results of students have clearly become a political battleground, for example between the teachers lobby and the Ministry – a battle over salaries and standards of teacher training.

By my calculations the eventual pass rate works out to be almost 40% – (26% on the first attempt, plus another 13% of the total on the second go.)  In other words 60% of those who enter grade 12 are for some reason not making the distance.

I can think of at least three root causes for this, and they include:

  1. Poor standards of teacher training. It is one thing to supply enough teachers, but as my figures show elsewhere on this blog, around half the teachers in Cambodia have themselves progressed no further than grade 12.
  2.  lack of teaching of study skills, and lack of textbooks or resources for students. It is one thing to attend classes in Cambodia, but many students don’t have the skills or resources to support what they learn in the classroom.
  3. Poverty. The current pass figures, low as they are, would be even lower if poor students – those from poor families – were even to make it through to grade 12. Many of those who do still need to work full time on the family farm or business simply to make ends meet with their family. Grade 12 students in many cases are forced by circumstances to treat school as their side activity; not their main one.

For more up to date figures from the Cambodian education sector – teacher student ratios and a teacher shortage in Siem Reap. Plus: How Qualified are the Teachers of Cambodia?

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