Arab students are lowering Israel's achievements on standardized tests, Education Ministry Director General Shimshon Shoshani said yesterday.

"If we want to improve our international rankings, we must improve the results of the Arab sector," Shoshani said at a press conference called to unveil the results of the annual Israeli standardized achievement test, the Meitzav. "The Arab sector lowers the education system's results."

Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, who also addressed the conference, vowed to "work to reduce the gaps with regard to the Arab sector."

Overall the latest Meitzav, which relates to the 2008-09 academic year, revealed a slight improvement in students' achievements in core subjects: native language (Hebrew or Arabic), math, science and English. But it also revealed a widening gap between Jewish and Arab students as well as large gaps between students from poor families and those from well-off ones.

Sa'ar postulated that the improvement in last year's scores stemmed from the fact that last year, for the first time in several years, the school year was not disrupted by teacher strikes or sanctions. Another factor, he said, was the pedagogic lessons learned from analyzing previous exam results.

He praised his predecessor, Yuli Tamir, for the improvement, noting that he himself took office only this past March.

The Meitzav is administered to both fifth- and eighth-graders. Among the former, the Jewish-Arab gap was particularly wide in math, while among the latter the widest gaps were in science and English.

Fully 39 percent of those who took the tests reported that they took private lessons in at least one subject to supplement their public-school education. That is viewed as a major reason for the gap between richer and poorer students: The latter cannot afford private lessons.

The Meitzav also includes a questionnaire on "school climate." Some 13 percent of students who responded to this questionnaire said they had been involved in a violent incident in the month prior to the test, identical to the response the previous year.

The Meitzav's findings about the achievement gap between rich and poor are confirmed by another recent study. That study, by Dr. Yaakov Gilboa of Sapir College and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, found that the poorer the student, the worse their achievements and the less likely they are to overcome the gap. Gilboa found, for example, that students at a school serving a well-off population have a 52-percent chance of improving their Meitzav scores between fifth and eighth grades, while students whose school is at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale has only a 37-percent chance of doing so.