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As the strike among secondary-school teachers went into its 48th day, yesterday, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) released scores for math and reading comprehension tests showing Israeli students scored 55-60 points lower than the international average. (Test scores range from 200 to 800, with 500 the average score.)

The figures, which pertain to an international exam administered in 2006, reflect a partial deterioration in students' abilities from the previous administration of the test. The test also showed that the Israeli educational system was the most highly polarized of all surveyed countries.

According to the test results, Israeli students came in in 40th place out of the 57 countries appearing on the PISA chart. The Israeli youths performed slightly better in sciences, where they were ranked 39.

Arab-Israeli students fared particularly poorly, with Arab high school students scoring an average of 64 points less than their Jewish counterparts in the sciences. The state of affairs was even worse in reading comprehension and math, where Arab students received 88 to 84 points less than their Jewish peers. Furthermore, students from affluent homes were found to receive 100 points more than those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The PISA tests, which are administered once every three years by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), check the performance of 15-year-old high school students from the 10th grade in sciences, reading and math. The intention is to determine how well students in the principal industrialized countries are being prepared for future challenges, whether they can they analyze, reason and communicate effectively, and whether they have the capacity to continue learning throughout life.

The international test last year was taken by 400,000 students. The number of Israeli 10th graders who participated in the sample was 4,600, hailing from schools from all over the country.

In reading comprehension, the performance of Israeli students plummeted by 13 points, compared to the previous PISA tests, in 2002. That year, Israelis ranked 30th in reading comprehension out of 41 countries. The deterioration apparently owes to particularly poor performance on the part of male students.

In math, both male and female students ranked 31st, and 33rd in sciences, two subjects in which Israelis managed to hold their ground. In relation to the same countries that participated in the previous test, the performance of Israeli students has remained much the same.

Finland, Hong Kong and Canada top the rankings, while Azerbaijan, Qatar and Kyrgyzstan hold the last three spots. Responding to the scores, Education Minister Yuli Tamir said that the "exams demonstrate the ongoing failure of the education system." The results, she said, "strengthen the need for reform. We can't carry out cosmetic adjustments in education. If there is no real and comprehensive change - we'll stay in the same place."

Tamir also said that the "biggest failure begins with the middle schools. We need to invest in them in a focused manner. We also need to think boldly about the matter of heterogeneity in the classroom. Because of heterogeneity, both weaker and exceptional students suffer."

According to PISA, some 15 percent of Israeli students are at the lowest level of scholastic performance in the sciences, which puts them at "a severe disadvantage" when they attempt to fully integrate in society and the market. Some 20 percent of students are at the same level in reading comprehension and 22 percent are at that level in math.