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In the history matriculation exam in 1987, students were asked: "What demographic and economic changes took place in the Old Yishuv in the Land of Israel in the second half of the 19th century?" They were asked to "present the struggle of the Yishuv, the Zionist Movement and the Holocaust survivors for the establishment of the Jewish state from 1945 to 1947," and to "describe the first stages of the War of Independence."

Twenty years later, Dr. Gadi Rauner of Tel Aviv's School of Education says the questions are almost unchanged. The tests, he says, "remain the last anchor of conservatism."

Basic matriculation tests in history for secular public schools demand easily measurable answers: "Note two processes" and "Present two actions" are common preludes.

"Some of the studying for the exam involves learning how to obey these instructions. To avoid surprises, no other words are used," Rauner says. "To succeed, you have to learn the material in the books by heart. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as this kind of learning doesn't take center stage."

One little-discussed aspect of the exams is the control they exert over the teaching process. According to Dr. Yoshua Matias of the Hebrew University School of Education, "You can talk until tomorrow about educational autonomy and the ability of the teacher to affect the student," but the content of the basic matriculation test is set solely by the Education Ministry, "ensuring conformity of historical thought."

The questions' boundaries are clearly defined. Out of 280 questions in matriculation exams between 2002 and 2006, less than 5 percent dealt with Israeli Arabs and the Arab world. Even those that did were from the Zionist perspective; for example, "Present three ways the Arabs struggled against the British and the Jews from 1936 to 1939."

The debate over the appearence of the word nakba, the Arabic word for disaster used by some to describe the establishment of the State of Israel, misses the point: Arab students can apparently learn about it, but it has not reached the history matriculation exam in the secular public schools.

The transformation in historiography over recent decades is also nowhere to be seen in the exams: Women's history, social history and economic history are absent. The relationship between Jewish and general history is barely touched on either, according to Matias, "as if these were two different histories."

The average history grade in the secular public system was 75.09 points. Only 27 percent of students received a grade of "excellent" (85 or higher), and only 559 students took the highest level of the test.

Bible

Professor Yaira Amit of Tel Aviv University's School of Jewish Studies and the School of Education is angry. Four years ago, she headed a committee that published a new, deeper and more relevant curriculum in Bible for public secular schools. As for the matriculation questions, "most were only at the level of reading comprehension," she says.

"The changes in the curriculum created fertile ground for dealing with ideas relating to the Bible as universal literature, but the matriculation questions expect almost no thought."

As an example of such a question, Amit mentions 1 Kings 3:7, where King Solomon prays for a wise heart. The next story in the text is the famous Solomonic decision on which of two women will receive the baby they both claim.

"Instead of presenting a question in principle about expectations of a king of Israel, the question asks students to present three details of the story," Amit says. "It appears as if the exam's writer is afraid to ask questions that are too deep."

The average Bible grade was 71.91 points, and only 26 percent of students excelled. In 2006, only 441 students took the highest-level exam.

Literature

The emphasis in the matriculation exams is technical. Students are frequently asked to find literary "ways of design" and "colorful language" in various important works. According to Professor Michael Gluzman, head of the Literature Department at Tel Aviv University, "the escape to rhetorical elements is the first failure of the exam. It completely misses the content."

For example, Gluzman says, "asking what the metaphor is in a poem by Rachel is meaningless. Rachel's poetry must be examined in light of women's poetry as opposed to men's poetry, and so on. These are very exciting questions, but the exams stay away from any political-ideological discussion."

The average grade in the literature exam is 71.34 points, with 19.6 percent of students excelling. In literature, as opposed to history and Bible, 2.283 students took the highest level exam.