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The Education Ministry has instructed teachers grading matriculation exams to round up scores of 52, and give students a 55 instead - the passing grade.

The instruction seems to relate to tests in the humanities, including geography, literature and civics. However, some sources claim it may also pertain to other subjects.

Teachers in various fields say the directive has been in place for several years. An admissions official at one of the universities said yesterday that the directive "calls into question the credibility and validity of matriculation grades."

Exam graders are reportedly told about the directives orally, at the start of grading instruction sessions each year. Education Ministry sources say the instructions apply to grades of 52 and above, but one civics teacher said that even lower grades, like 51, were supposed to be rounded up.

"No one says that the goal is to reduce the number of failures, but it's clear to everyone that this is what it means," the teacher said.

According to Education Ministry figures, 15 percent of students failed civics in 2007 - the highest failure rate of all the mandatory subjects in the Jewish sector. Students who fail more than one subject do not receive matriculation certificates. In addition, students must receive at least 55 in English and 45 in math, so the directive directly impacts the number of matriculants.

The civics teacher, who is checking exams for the first time this year, said, "There is an entrenched culture of cloaking the real level of students' knowledge. The problem is that no one - either in the Education Ministry or other teachers - gets upset about it anymore."

Another teacher said that when she comes across a test that deserves a low grade, she reads the exam again and "on questions where a student did not receive many points I add a few. Clearly this means that the number of failures is greater than reported."

A teacher who checks history exams said: "The directive we received is to 'judge leniently' and seek 'bright spots' in the exam. It's a 'fishing expedition.' The grader has to 'fish' out a word, a sentence or half an idea and give a passing grade. Unfortunately, despite the directive, I don't always manage to 'fish.' I have no doubt that the tests today would not receive the same grades they would have a decade ago or more."