Students taking the Meitzav at a school in Jerusalem.
Students taking the Meitzav at a school in Jerusalem. Photo by Lior Mizrahi
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The results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) international survey released on Tuesday are nothing to be proud of. Alongside a moderate improvement in students’ achievement in reading, mathematics and science, the survey reveals that the educational gap between the average Jewish pupil and average Arab pupil has grown over the years, and now stands at an estimated three school years.

Similar differences were found between Jewish students from wealthy and low-income families.

Such a shaky basis will make it difficult for thousands of students to find their place in the labor market in a few years, and dooms them to a future of poverty and exclusion from positions of power. This situation results from a policy of neglect. The Education Ministry must recognize these gaps as a national problem and quickly put together a plan to reduce them.

The PISA assesses the competence of 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics and science in 65 countries, and unlike other exams, both domestic and international, that assess students’ achievement in different subjects, PISA focuses on the ability to understand and apply thinking skills. In all the surveyed subjects, Israeli students’ achievements were below the international average.

Domestically, the gaps between Jews and Arabs ranged from 98 points in science to 109 in reading (with every 35 points in the survey being tantamount to one school year). In digital reading skills the gap reached 155 points, with 77 percent of the Arab students were classified as having difficulty.

These figures are not new. They follow a long line of studies and tests showing that such gaps have become a major characteristic of Israel’s education system. It is no accident that in every subject the PISA assessed, Israel is at the top of the international scale for inequality in achievement. The chasm between Jews and Arabs and between the rich and poor are known, but beyond the occasional expression of regret, the Education Ministry has refused to deal with this state of affairs honestly and courageously. The education system has never declared narrowing differences and advancing children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds as strategic goals. In recent years it has focused on other objectives, such as fostering Jewish and national values.

The results of the last PISA survey should awaken the Education Ministry chiefs and prompt them to change their policy. Differential budgeting can help narrow the gaps, but a change of approach is also required - from shameful neglect of weak students to taking responsibility for advancing them. A plan to reduce the inequality must help these children move from their place in the back of the national stage to its front.