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The Ministry of Education has set a new goal to improve third graders' reading skills ahead of an international exam in which Israeli pupils have scored poorly in the past.

The initiative calls for teachers to devote between eight and 10 ten hours a week - an increase of two hours - toward improving pupils' reading comprehension in their mother tongues of either Hebrew or Arabic.

Sara Reuter, head of the ministry's elementary education branch, yesterday circulated a memorandum detailing the shift in focus for the third grade. "[Schools] will inspect and document the linguistic progress of each and every pupil," the memorandum instructed.

The new program is aimed at improving Israel's scores in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). In the 2006 examination Israel placed 31st place out of 45 participating countries.

An education researcher at a leading university criticized the plan yesterday, saying the Education Ministry set its academic agenda with the aim of succeeding in international exams instead of its set of values.

"It seems like the Ministry of Education is making a special effort with third-graders so that they produce results the following year in the international exam," the researcher said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Such efforts should begin in kindergarten, and reading comprehension skills should be developed in all subjects."

"Decisions on what to invest in are nowadays greatly influenced by international exams," a source in the Education Ministry who wished not to be named said. "No doubt, it's important to do well in such tests but they cannot become the be-all and end-all. As a result a lot more pressure will be felt at schools."

Reuter wrote in the letter sent to elementary schools nationwide that the Education Ministry seeks to improve the grades for reading comprehension by 10 percent in the next PIRLS test, which will be held in 2011. She added that at the same time it was important to "keep up routine work in all classes."

Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar and the ministry's Director General, Shimshon Shoshani, have promised to improve Israel's ranking in international exams.

The ministry recently instructed elementary schools to bolster studies in mathematics and science - two other subjects tested in international exams - by an additional two hours per week. Teachers have also been told by the ministry to inform parents of their children's progress in these subjects on a more regular basis.

The PIRLS is a large international comparative study of reading literacy among fourth-graders. It is coordinated every five years by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. It focuses on reading comprehension, but also examines, among other things, behaviors and attitudes toward reading.

In 2006 Israeli pupils came in 31st place, provoking calls by 40 MKs, including some from the ruling Kadima Party, to fire then education minister Yuli Tamir (Labor). Sa'ar organized a petition, together with former Education Ministry director general MK Ronit Tirosh (Kadima), calling for Tamir's dismissal.