Israeli pupils came in 31st place on a literacy test administered last year to fourth-graders in 45 countries, raising calls by 40 MKs, including some from the ruling Kadima party, for the firing of Education Minister Yuli Tamir (Kadima).

The top three spots on the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) went to Russia, Hong Kong and Singapore, respectively.

The test results, published Wednesday, showed almost no improvement in Israel's achievements since the previous test in 2001. They also underscored large gaps between pupils at Jewish and Arab schools.

Similarly disturbing gaps appear in the results of last year's national standardized assessment tests in four core subjects, which the Education Ministry released on Wednesday. However, the Jewish students scored poorly overall.

In response to the PIRLS report, about 40 MKs signed a petition calling on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to fire Tamir.

They cited the ongoing strikes by high school teachers and university faculty and "the serious damage to the education system."

The petition was the brainchild of Likud whip MK Gideon Saar and MK Ronit Tirosh (Kadima), a former Education Ministry director general. The signatories include most Likud MKs, as well as Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz and Knesset House Committee chairman David Tal, both of Kadima.

Olmert told reporters that Mofaz's support for the petition was unacceptable and said Tamir was not responsible for the low test scores.

"Ronit Tirosh, Gideon Saar and Bibi [Benjamin] Netanyahu will not teach me how to fix the education system," Tamir said in response to the petition, "because I'm still busy fixing the enormous damage they left behind."

Tamir made her comments in an interview to Channel 2 television news.

With regard to Mofaz, Tamir said, "I don't criticize Mofaz every time there's a traffic accident. Each person decides how to behave. This certainly will not help end the strike. We must be a little more serious, and not populist."

The PIRLS is a large international comparative study of reading literacy among fourth-graders. It is coordinated every five years by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. It focuses on reading comprehension, but also examines, among other things, behaviors and attitudes toward reading.

The latest study, from 2006, encompassed some 215,000 pupils in 45 countries and distinct political or cultural entities (such as various regions in Canada or Belgium).

The PIRLS report defines reading literacy as "The ability to understand and use written language forms required by society and/or valued by the individual."

Test scores were converted into an international scale of 0 to 1,000 points, with 500 as the average. According to the published data, the average Israeli pupil scored 512 points. For comparison's sake, the average Russian score was 565; Hong Kong, 564; and Singapore, 558. Israel is in the neighborhood of countries like Poland (519), Spain (513) and Iceland (511). At the bottom of the list are Kuwait (330), Morocco (323) and South Africa (302).

A comparison of the latest test results with those from 2001 reveals that the three countries in the top slots improved their scores the most. Russian pupils improved their scores by 37 points; Hong Kong pupils by 36 points; and Singaporeans by 30 points.

A marked improvement was also registered in Slovenia, Slovakia, Italy and Germany.

By contrast, last year's Israeli fourth-graders bettered their fellows' 2001 scores by just four points. Last time around, Israel's pupils placed 23rd out of 35 countries that participated in the study.

PIRLS administrators say the results show that countries can improve their pupils' achievements. For example, Hong Kong and Singapore enacted teaching methods and teacher training reforms, while Russian elementary schools now provide an additional hour of tuition.

Prof. Ilit Olstein of the Hebrew University School of Education, one of two Israeli researchers for the PIRLS test, says the gap between Jewish and Arab students is one of the tests' more disturbing conclusions.

"The gap in achievements between the Jewish and Arab sectors is very striking, and unfortunately this has not improved since the previous test five years ago. One of the national missions the school system must take upon itself is promoting literacy in the Arab sector," she said.