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Inexplicable Exams

Last week final examinations began at my high school. There appears to be no students in the schoolyard this morning. In theory class begins at 7 a.m. Today the canteen is closed, but school break for Khmer New Year doesn’t begin until next week. A plastic bottle rolls by. Feels like I’m on the set of ghost town western. Did I miss the memo?

I wait. It is shady, if not cool in the schoolyard. In the USA students will leave the classroom and report a missing teacher if one is more than 15 minutes late. Here, where time is not money, we wait. Students will wait two hours for a teacher who may or may not arrive. Sometimes they play games. Mostly they look at their phones and wait. I wait as well for my late teachers. A wise PCV in the north gave me this axiom: “Class does not begin until the Cambodian teacher is in the classroom.” This is a reasonable strategy. If you teach without your counterpart, they miss your lesson. It also shows students that you are a team when you teach together. Besides, missing class can become a habit for teachers who really aren’t that interested in their job. But today I wait for students who have no motivation to come to school. Their exams are done.

A Khmer teacher told me the Ministry of Education stopped national standardized testing each term a couple of years ago because it was too expensive. Now teachers in every province and classroom create different tests for the same national text. The English For Cambodia texts are 15 years old. There is a newer edition, but only the editorial change was to add colored illustrations.

Examinations for English Language are baffling. One of my teacher’s tenth grade final consisted entirely of fill-in-the-blank answers with two vocabulary options provided. Despite the easy test, cheating was obvious and unabashed. I complained to my co-teacher that students were sharing answers. He just smiled. I told him that he must tell students to stop talking and to look only at their own papers. He nodded and did, which caused a momentary pause. Exasperated, I told my teacher I could not stay and witness what I considered to be a breach of ethical educational standards. “You go?” he asked sweetly.

I went to the school library to cool off. Students sit at long tables and quietly read aloud to one another or do homework. There are reference books in English and Khmer. This library is a model of good stewardship for books and scholarship. I can point to the reason: the librarian who dedicated years to procuring and organizing the space. She created a standard for libraries, which is respected throughout the province.

While I cooled off in the library I thought about what had just happened. It wasn’t a shock or revelation. We were warned during Pre-Service Training there would be days like this. We were told about the culture of cheating and how some teachers supplement their income by selling students exam answers. I did not see that, but honestly, I didn’t want to look too closely. Classroom cheating is guileless. It’s really more like mass-collaboration. The “clever students” help those who did not study or didn’t even buy the book because that’s what you do in your family. Not everyone pulls their own weight, so some have to pull harder.

In this slanted light of the library I can see the merit in helping your friend, your brother. It is an ethical choice. It is also part of a national non-identity, which is to not be too clever, not be number one. The problem is when no one has any ideas of their own we have nothing new to talk about. No new solutions to the same old problems.

I feel like I should be wearing a button: “Ask me about education standards.” Hey, I’m offering free samples.

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