Students Nervous Over Upcoming National Exams as Lessons Go Back Online

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Students at Phnom Penh’s Chea Sim Boeng Keng Kang High School on November 9, 2020. (Tran Techseng/VOD)
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As the government closes schools for a second time amid renewed concerns of Covid-19 transmission, Phnom Penh students preparing for their ninth and 12th grade tests are concerned they have fallen behind during their online lessons.

Van Savet, the chief technical officer for mathematics at Phnom Penh’s Chea Sim Boeng Keng Kang High School, said the pandemic school closures will have an impact on students’ exams. The online courses had not been as effective as in-person classes because in the physical classroom teachers can explain or elaborate the lesson based on students’ questions, he said.

Students who aren’t studying, or supplementing their lessons by reading textbooks or watching educational YouTube videos, are likely to struggle with their exams, Savet said.  

“If we teach them directly, the students get at least 70 percent of the 100 percent [of information] they are taught,” he said. “If we teach online, the students studying understand less, only 30 to 40 percent, and if they are a good student, they get 50 percent [of the lesson].”

After attending an Independence Day ceremony that proceeded despite the Health Ministry’s orders to close Phnom Penh and Kandal schools and entertainment facilities, a group of ninth graders from Chea Sim Boeng Keng Kang school sat and chatted inside their campus, soft drinks, bags and power banks spread across the outdoor table but no textbooks in sight. 

Ninth grader Nhoem Kimey, 15, called the school closures a “waste of time” for the students, saying that she believed her grade and her senior peers in 12th grade should be allowed to attend classes in person but with masks, sanitizers and socially-distanced classroom arrangements. 

Her peer, Neav Saodaneath, 15, said most teachers at the high school just send assignments to the students for them to complete and submit, while only a few teachers — her Khmer literature, chemistry and physics teachers — will teach live lessons via Zoom conference calls. She said she’s worried she won’t do well on the upcoming national exam.

“I’m afraid I cannot do the tests,” she told VOD. “I’m slightly prepared for the exam. But Covid made things messed up. [The exam date] seems uncertain. I’m afraid I can’t do the exam.” 

In early September, the Education Ministry rescheduled national exams for ninth and 12th grade students to November 30 and December 21, respectively, after beginning to reopen public schools in stages in late August. Schools nationwide were closed for at least five months, with the ministry ordering school closures in March as the country identified 12 cases of Covid-19.

For Kheang Sovandaraodom, a 17-year-old studying grade 12 in Preah Sihanouk High School’s New Generation public-private school pilot program, the latest school closures offer additional self-study time, he said on Monday.

Internet speed and connectivity can be a problem with online lessons, but Sovandaraodom said it wasn’t a huge impediment to his school work.

“Even if [the internet] is fast, some students are lazy in their studying,” he said. “They could be sleeping while they should be studying … for me, I’m not [lazy].”

The 12th grader said he was not worried about his exam performance, regardless whether school is open or closed.

“[I] don’t have very much concern about the exam because before that I have done a lot of self-studies.”

Another New Generation 12th grader, Enokuchi Atom, 18, said he had a hard time absorbing the lessons when taught online. Classes like math, chemistry and physics are especially hard to understand through video lessons, and Atom said he has had to rewatch the education videos multiple times and chat online with teachers in order to understand the lesson.

“The efficiency is very low, listening through mobile phones,” he said. “It’s like we listen to music one time, and then we forget it.”

However, Ouk Chayavy, president of the Cambodia Association of Independent Teachers, said she supported the school closures, adding closures should be extended beyond Phnom Penh and Kandal provincial towns if Covid-19 cases are found.

Chayavy said that she expected students to perform poorly on the exams, because she already gave some students a mock exam after months of online learning and their scores were quite low. However, she felt that the ministry would end up curving the exams in order to help students pass during the pandemic, which could have caused considerable strain already on parents’ livelihoods. 

“We see that what [grades] they received were lower, really low, because they haven’t studied hard enough,” she said. “Secondly, we already see that Covid has impacted their families very badly. Therefore, their efforts to study have been limited.”   

Education Ministry spokesperson Ros Soveacha said that the ninth and 12th grade exams would remain on the dates the ministry rescheduled to back in early September, as the ministry did not see any reason to change the dates yet.

Soveacha said he didn’t know whether the ministry would set the top score at a lower level in order to ensure a fair number of students pass, saying it would depend on students’ performance at the end of the year.

“Related to the grade 12 qualification exam, [the ministry] has kept its principles the same as the previous years,” he said. “They are the principles of law, fairness, transparency and acceptable results.”

Savet, the mathematics teacher, said he expects the failure rate on this year’s exams could be as low as in 2014, when more than 70 percent of 12th-grade students failed the national test after the Education Ministry strictly banned cheating and fraud. 

He suggested that the ministry curve the exam scores to reflect the performance of students, simplify the questions, or allow a retake to give the students a better chance at passing amid the school closures. 

“I could only say that the students studying during Covid era are really weaker than before the Covid outbreak,” he said. “So if the Education Ministry lowers the difficulty of the exams and makes them easier than in previous years, the students will be able to do better on their tests.”

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