Ninth graders here averaged a grade of 66 out of 100 in last year's exams on Zionism, heritage and democracy, according to recently released test results.
The program, dubbed "100 Concepts," has since been scrapped by Education Minister Yuli Tamir, who replaced it with a new one focusing on Jewish heritage.
The "100 Concepts" was one of the curricular cornerstones of former education minister Limor Livnat and aimed to inculcate Zionism, cultural heritage and democracy in junior-high students. Each of the 100 major concepts was summed up in a few lines.
Some 25,000 ninth-grade Jewish pupils took the exam last year. Some 8,000 Arab pupils took another version of the exam. The questions about democracy were identical for both groups.
The scores for Jewish students, whether in state or state religious schools (75 and 55 respectively), were similar for the exam questions on democracy and Zionism. But in questions on Judaism, the religious school students scored 80 points on average, while the secular ones scored 64. Consequently the overall grade in the religious schools reached 71 points compared to 65 in the secular schools.
Less than a quarter of the secular pupils achieved a grade higher than 78 points.
The program's multiple-choice exam required the pupils to mark the correct answer from four possibilities. For example, they were asked what month comes after Shvat in the Hebrew calendar; with what country did Israel sign a peace agreement while Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister; which parties make up the opposition; what authority does the Knesset constitute; when the maabarot (transit camps) were set up; and what is a Jew in the Land of Israel forbidden to do during a shmita (fallow) year?
Livnat and the ministry's top officials said it was important for all the pupils to learn basic concepts regarding their identity and democratic government.
Tamir and Professor Anat Zohar, chairman of the Education Ministry's Pedagogic Department, decided to discard the program as not thought-stimulating. They replaced it with a program consisting of central themes in Judaism, whose study is based on various primary texts.
Education Ministry officials said ninth-grade civics studies have been expanded to include democracy in the new program at some 130 schools and will extend to all junior-high classes next school year.
MK Ronit Tirosh (Kadima), who was ministry director general when the "100 Concepts" exam was introduced, said "the program was intended to deal with the pupils' ignorance on matters of heritage, Zionism and democracy. It was supposed to provide them with 'tastes' of those subjects. We realized that we couldn't teach it in depth, but [wanted] the pupils to learn at least the basic concepts."
Tirosh said that canceling the program and exam was a mistake. "It's ignoring the pupils' ignorance in the name of wanting more in-depth studies," she said.
An Education Ministry spokesman said "the ministry concluded that the "100 Concepts" program wasn't achieving its purpose - to impart the required knowledge in Zionism, heritage and democracy, because it was based on learning by rote rather than by real understanding of the text and its meaning."
Tamir has said the new program "will bring the student closer to the 'Jewish bookshelf' through a meaningful discussion. The experiential and challenging learning method will help the student to develop a Jewish identity while learning the value of tolerance."
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