The tests administered to first-graders applying to magnet schools in Tel Aviv violate regulations banning admissions exams, the Education Ministry has finally admitted.

For years, both the ministry and the Tel Aviv municipality claimed that the two nature and arts schools were authorized to give the exams.

The municipality opposes abolishing the tests, and is currently looking into changing their content so that they can receive authorization. But a well-placed Education Ministry source said "there is little hope of these entry exams being authorized, even if their format is altered. The ban on assessment exams for admission is clear and unequivocal."

Three weeks ago, Haaretz disclosed that Education Ministry officials had instructed the ministry's Tel Aviv district director, Dalit Shtauber, to deal urgently with the entry exams for the nature and arts schools, as they "violate the ministry's policy." This was an unusual directive, given that senior ministry officials had tacitly consented to the exams for years.

Two weeks ago, Shtauber responded. In a letter to senior ministry officials, she wrote that the two nature and arts schools "were founded before the establishment of the committee to assess such specialized schools. Thus orderly procedures for assessing their distinctive character, including the granting of authorization for admissions and assessment procedures, have never been instituted."

Translated into plain English, what Shtauber's statement means is that the two Tel Aviv schools never received permits to administer entry exams.

Ministry officials refused to comment on this topic yesterday beyond saying that Shtauber had been asked to submit all the relevant material as soon as possible so that an orderly decision can be made. But a source who worked in the Tel Aviv municipality's education authority several years ago said "these exams are a tradition of many years' standing, and they have been supported by all senior Education Ministry officials. Nobody ever said anything about the exams to us."

The admissions exams for the nature and arts schools are meant to assess the 5-year-old applicants' cognitive abilities and capacity to adjust to school. The admissions process also includes observing and evaluating the youngsters while in school. Applications to both schools well exceed the number of available spots, so only about a quarter of all applicants are admitted.

But Prof. Haim Adler of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, an Israel Prize winner in the field of education, argued that "no test can forecast a child's ability or desire to study nature at such a young age. These exams classify children according to their cultural background and confer an advantage on those who come from certain backgrounds. I can understand the schools' desire to admit only those they deem suitable. That definitely makes things easier. But it is unjust and immoral."