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The Education Ministry has rejected a request from a group of Tel Aviv high school principals to remove special education students from statistics for passing high school matriculation exams, claiming their inclusion lowers the average at their schools.

The principals said that if the present policy continues, the result is likely to be that special education students will be removed from schools in 10th grade, before the matriculation exams begin, as schools seek to keep their numbers up.

Some 8,000 special education students are currently studying in mainstream high schools. Most are placed in separate classes, but some are assimilated, according to their ability, in regular classes, and take matriculation exams.

The 2002 "Integration Law" and a number of subsequent Supreme Court appeals determined that special education students and their parents are entitled to choose whether to attend mainstream schools instead of special educational institutions.

The Education Ministry's figures include all students in 12th grade. Passing rates on the exams are a central feature in schools' efforts to market themselves.

"The pass rate at my school stood at 87 percent last year," said Ram Cohen, principal of the Ironi Aleph high school in Tel Aviv. "There were 200 students in the grade, and 10 of them were part of special education. From their first day here it was clear they would have difficulty securing a full and complete matriculation certificate," he said.

"Parents who judge the school according to its achievements don't know that the figures included a special education class, and that my pass rate is actually 92 percent," he added.

"When the list of outstanding schools is compiled, no one gets high marks for bringing special education students through to 12th grade," he said."

Sarah Halperin, principal of the Lady Davis school in Tel Aviv, said, "the decision to include special education pupils in passing figures testifies to the Education Ministry's lack of appreciation of efforts to integrate these students. Different criteria for success must be set for them."

According to another principal, "the Education Ministry is sending a mixed message: On the one hand it is pressuring us to have more students pass the exam, and on the other it includes special education students in the figures."

Leah Rosenberg, head of the ministry's pedagogical administration, said in response that her office "does not sanctify passing the exam. On the contrary, schools are gauged according to various criteria, including integration of special-needs pupils."

Another official added, "the principals' position is discomforting. Special education students are budgeted higher than are regular students. We feel that all students registered at a certain school are linked to that school, including in regard to eligibility for a matriculation certificate."

The director general of the Council for the Welfare of the Child, Yitzhak Kadman, said, "treating special needs children as non-people not entitled to be counted among the other students testifies to an educational, civil and social failure. The race for achievements in the matriculation exam leads schools to remove anyone who is weak, namely special education students and those who are likely to lower the average."

"The implied threat to leave these students behind indicates that there are failings among those who are supposed to make sure this doesn't happen, that is, the Education Ministry."