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Israeli students have placed 36th among 64 countries ranked by reading achievements and 41st by math and science achievements, according to figures released yesterday by PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment.

The results, based on data gathered in March 2009, reflect a slight improvement, particularly in reading achievements, from previous rankings published in 2006, but also showed major discrepancies between Jewish and Arab students.

In comparing results from the 57 countries that participated in the study both years, Israel jumped six places in reading and was ranked one place higher in math. Its science ranking was unchanged. The test is sponsored by the Organization for International Cooperation and Development, which Israel joined this year.

Addressing the gaps between Jewish and Arab children, the director general of the Education Ministry's National Authority for Educational Measurement and Evaluation, Michal Beller, said it was the equivalent of about two-and-a-half years of schooling.

The PISA international exam is conducted every three years among 15-year-olds. In the most recent testing, particular emphasis was placed on reading skills. Worldwide, about 470,000 students took the most recent test, including more than 5,700 in Israel, comprising a representative sample of the Israeli population. In addition to the 64 participating countries, one Chinese city, Shanghai, participated and came in first in all three subjects - reading, math and science.

In reading, on a scale of 200 to 800 points, Israelis scored an average of 474 points, compared with an international average of 493 points. Seven percent of Israeli 15-year-olds showed a high level of reading skills, which is about the international average. The proportion of students in Israel who scored poorly in reading, however, was 27 percent - significantly higher than the 19 percent international average. Among those countries with similar reading achievement scores as Israel's were Spain, the Czech Republic and Turkey. The improvement in Israeli students' reading scores compared with 2006 stems from a major improvement in the test scores of Jewish students.

Unlike reading, math scores showed little change and the proportion of Israeli students who excelled in math was half the international average. Furthermore, 39 percent of Israelis scored poorly in math as opposed to an international average of 22 percent. Israel's math achievement scores were comparable to those in Dubai, Turkey and Serbia, and once again reflected large gaps between Jews and Arabs. The average math score in Israel was 447 compared with an international average of 496.

In science, Israelis scored an average of 455 compared with an international average of 501. In this subject as well, the proportion of Israelis who excelled in the exam was half the international average (4 percent compared with 8 percent ). Even worse, 33 percent of Israelis scored poorly in science compared with 18 percent internationally. Israeli students achieved similar results in science as their counterparts Dubai and Turkey.

Addressing the findings at a Tel Aviv press conference where the results were presented, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar said: "If we look at Hebrew speakers separately, the students' achievements are actually above the OECD average. There was also an improvement in the Arab community but it was not of the same magnitude."

He added: "We cannot ignore the very large discrepancies between Jews and Arabs in every subject. We must invest especially in the Arab community."

The Monitoring Committee for Arab Education said it was not surprised by the gaps in achievement scores, which it said reflected an inferior investment of resources in Israeli Arab schools. It said Arab education in Israel requires a complete overhaul.