Nearly every fourth pupil who took matriculation exams received special allowances for learning disabilities, according to internal Education Ministry data. This is a 6-percent increase over the previous year.
These allowances include extra time, having exam questions read out loud, and being able to give answers orally.
The number of pupils who benefit from adaptations or modifications has risen steadly over the past decade - from 8.2 percent in 1998 to 22.3 percent in 2007. These figures include pupils at institutions that prepare them for external matriculation exams and graduates seeking to improve previous scores.
Prof. Zvia Breznitz, chair of the learning disabilities department at the University of Haifa, says that such a high rate of learning disabilities "does not make sense" and is unknown in other Western countries, where the rate is around 7 percent of all pupils.
"I don't know where these high figures are coming from. There's something very wrong here," she said.
An official at another university said the data "raises major questions about the quality of the matriculation certificate."
A breakdown of the data shows that the highest rate of pupils who got breaks on tests was at state religious schools, with 33.4 percent. In the secular school system, the rate last year was 25.2 percent.
By contrast, the rate at Arab and Druze schools was much lower, between 4.3 and 6.9 percent. Ministry officials say this is because teachers and parents in the sector are less aware of learning disabilities, the high cost of psychological diagnostic testing (as much as NIS 3,000), parents' and pupils' fear of ensuing stigma, and the dearth of psychologists who can conduct assessments in Arabic.
The process of diagnosing learning disabilities has lacked real Education Ministry supervision for years. Testing is done privately or through semi-private bodies, such as Nitzan, the Israeli Association for Persons with Learning Disabilities.
"So long as testing is done privately and not under the state's auspices, the number of allowances made on exams will only increase," says an Education Ministry official. "Despite all the mechanisms in place for oversight, diagnoses can still be bought. All you have to do is pay the right tester."
The University of Haifa's Breznitz is equally blunt: "We are talking about a dramatic increase in the number of pupils who receive concessions because of learning disabilities. There is grave concern that those who benefit from these breaks are the pupils who have the means to go to private diagnosticians."
Breznitz said that professionals who provide private diagnostic services are not under any supervision. "The these they conduct do not meet binding statewide criteria," she added.
The ministry's internal report does not provide a geographic breakdown of where modified tests were granted, but cross-referencing various data reveals that the Tel Aviv district tops the list for two kinds of allowances - adapted and oral exams - with 12.5 percent of its pupils last year taking these kinds of specialized tests.
The Jerusalem district is in second place in this category, with about 10 percent. In the remaining districts the comparable rate ran between 5 and 7 percent.
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