The percentage of second-generation Ethiopian immigrants who participate in special-education programs in elementary and high school is nearly double the nationwide figure of 7.5 percent, according to a Central Bureau of Statistics report released yesterday. The findings sparked criticism over the education system's approach to immigrants and charges of cultural bias in diagnostic testing.

The report, which puts the figure for the children of Ethiopian immigrants at 13.8 percent, also shows that the higher the parents' income and the mothers' education level, the less likely their children will be classified as having special needs.

The report found that 8.8 percent of low-income students - those whose parents occupy the bottom two income deciles - participate in special-education programs, while only 4.7 percent of those in the top two deciles study in such programs. And nearly 11 percent of students whose mothers had up to 11 years of schooling were placed in special-education programs, but only 4 percent of those whose mothers had more than 16 years of education were placed in such programs. Michal Shany, director of the Haifa University Clinic for Diagnoses and Research in Learning Disabilities, said the tests used to determine whether a child requires special education are not applicable to all cultures.

"Too many children are identified as 'special needs' because they are being judged with tools that are not appropriate to their culture," she said. "You cannot perform an intelligence test in the context of special education on students from Ethiopian backgrounds because it is culturally biased. On exams that test general knowledge, vocabulary or abstract thought, it is clear these students will get low scores."

Shani called for a new approach.

"The current policy is mistaken, as it does not consider the difference between the basic ability to learn - in which there are no differences between various groups - and knowledge that isn't provided because of cultural conditions," she said. "The solution has to be programs that close gaps, not keeping children inside the special education system."

The 120,000 Israeli students learning in such programs attend three types of educational facilities: special-education schools, special-education classes in regular schools and various "mixed programs" combining regular classwork with special assistance. About 63 percent of special-education students are male.

But the nationwide statistics mask stark differences between various cultural and ethnic groups. Figures for children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union are also higher than the national average, at 8.3 percent.

"For every student who does not act native-born, the school's first judgment is to send him to special education. This is a patronizing approach," said Roni Akala, head of Fidel, a non-profit organization that promotes the education and social integration of Ethiopian immigrants.

"The education system's finger is too light on the trigger," she said. "The Ethiopian community needs investment - not sending [students] to special education, which to a large extent closes off the child's future."