Only about 10 percent of Israeli students reached the highest level of achievement in any of the three topics covered by the international PISA exam - reading, math and science - according to a special report issued by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development this week.
This is considerably worse than the international average: Overall, 18 percent of students scored at the highest level in at least one subject in the 2006 exam, on which the report is based.
The OECD, which administers the Program for International Student Assessment, gives the exam to 15-year-olds from 57 countries every three years.
Moreover, the report found, even among outstanding students, Israel had one of the highest percentages of any participating country of students who said they are not interested in pursuing higher education or working in the sciences.
The initial results of the exam, which were published about a year and a half ago, showed Israeli students in 40th place out of 57 countries in reading and math, and in 39th place in science. In all three fields, the average Israeli score was 55 to 60 points below the international average.
On Wednesday, the OECD issued a follow-up report that analyzed the achievements of each country's top performers. It showed that while overall, 4.1 percent of students earned top scores in all three subjects, only 1.7 percent of Israeli students did.
Among students who excelled in only one of the three subjects, Israelis did slightly better than average in science, with 1.6 percent getting top scores in science but not reading or math, compared to 1.3 percent of students overall. In contrast, only 1.8 percent of Israelis earned top scores in reading only, compared to 2.3 percent of students overall, and 2.7 percent of Israelis earned top scores in math only, compared to 5.3 percent of students overall.
Moreover, Israel was overrepresented among the test's worst performers: Some 15 percent of its students were in this category in science, 20 percent in reading and 22 percent in math.
Unsurprisingly, the report found that a whopping 87 percent of Israel's top students came from relatively well-off families, who can afford to either attend schools that offer extra classes or pay for private lessons. That extra schooling evidently makes a difference: The report found that in the sciences, for instance, Israel's top performers studied science an average of four hours a week, compared to less than 1.5 hours among the lowest achievers.
In many other countries, in contrast, high performance was less closely linked with socioeconomic status, noted Prof. Zemira Mevarech of Bar-Ilan University, who coordinates the PISA in Israel.
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