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Girls have been attaining high school matriculation certificates at a higher rate than boys for decades, but while other gaps in exam results have diminished over the years, the gap between girls and boys has widened by about 20 percentage points in recent decades, according to a social policy study released yesterday.

The study, published by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, found that almost 55 percent of female high school students born in the late 1950s were passing the bagrut matriculation exam, compared with roughly 45 percent of their male counterparts. Beginning in the mid-1970s, there has been what the center calls a "pronounced and persistent drop" in male matriculation rates while the girls' rate increased, widening the gap from about 10 percentage points to about 30 percentage points for high school students born in 1979.

The gender gap is particularly evident among Israeli Arabs, whose male students lost an earlier advantage. Arab male students went from an advantage of 15 percent points over women to a disadvantage of 15 percentage points, according to the Taub Center.

Overall, Israeli Arabs have been matriculating at a steadily higher rate, from about 35 percent for students born in the late 1950s to just under 70 percent for those born in the late 1970s. But their rate has always remained below that of Jewish Israelis, whose overall rate went up in the same period, from fewer than half to more than 70 percent.

The research, conducted by Vicki Bronstein and Yossi Shavit, who heads the Taub Center's education policy program, also found that while more Israeli children of parents with only an elementary school education are passing the matriculation exams, which provides eligibility for higher education, those children are, by and large, not actually obtaining degrees.

Although more students from less educated families did go to college, the education gap was left intact.

This finding comes despite an expansion of the education system that began in the 1990s, when private colleges and local branches of overseas institutions began competing with existing Israeli universities, and the number of students getting bachelor's degree rose threefold, to 168,000 in 2008.

"The expansion of the higher education system is not an effective tool to minimize social gaps," said Shavit. "The differences in the matriculation rate are diminishing, but in the academic field there hasn't been a real change. The expansion of higher education allowed those from stronger segments of the population to get higher education easily, in comparison to the weaker segments of the population. Despite the increase in matriculation eligibility among the weaker and middle groups, their rates of higher education did not increase."

The study itself makes a similar point, saying more colleges aren't enough to ensure that the gaps are narrowed, "because the strong generally do well at taking advantage of the new opportunities offered by the system, and tend to do so more effectively than those from the weaker segments of the population."

The study found that children of parents with the least education showed the most improvement over the years.

Among high school students whose parents had only an elementary school education, 40 percent of those born between 1955 and 1959 passed the matriculation exam, compared with 55 percent of those born between 1975 and 1981.

For those whose parents had a high school education, the difference shrunk to 8 percentage points, and for those whose parents had at least a bachelor's degree, there was a difference of only 1 percentage point - and it was in favor of students born in the 1950s.