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For the first time in 14 years, this year there will be no national mathematics competition for junior-high students.

The Technion's Kesher Cham R & D Center for Mathematics Education, which operates out of the national center for math teachers, had organized the competition. Last year, after the Education Ministry held a tender, the operation was transferred to the University of Haifa. The relevant people at the Technion tried to continue running the competition by charging schools a symbolic fee, but, in light of the low response, has decided to cancel the project, which had been very well-received by the ministry.

In the previous school year, some 26,000 students from around 100 schools took part in the competition. "It hurts me that the education system cannot find a way to continue this project," said the head of the center," Prof. Nitsa Movshovitz-Hadar of the Technion.

An Education Ministry source familiar with the project said "the popular competition" in math created "a nice tradition in schools that managed to transform participation in the competition into an event that endeared math to children."

This is especially important against the backdrop of the recently published results showing low achievement in math among junior-high students. The average math grade among eighth-grade students on the national achievement tests last year was 44.1 points, whereas on the international test for children the same age, Israeli students came in 24th out of 49 countries.

The big advantage of competitions is that they expose students and teachers to questions that require mathematical thinking and are not based on prior knowledge of the material," explains Movshovitz-Hadar. Thanks to the different nature of the questions, she adds, "it has already happened more than once that the best results in the competition were achieved by students whose abilities the school did not identify."

In 2007, the budget allocated by the Education Ministry for the Kesher Cham Center (whose name is a Hebrew acronym for progress, improvement, and math education renewal) was transferred from the Technion to the University of Haifa. Last year's competition was funded by the budget left over at the Technion department.

Last September, at the start of the school year, Movshovitz-Hadar notified junior-high schools around Israel that participation in the competition would now require the payment of two to three shekels per student. "We explained to the principals that this is a pittance and still only around 30 schools signed up for the competition. "When the principals needed to mobilize on behalf of the project, only a few of them did so," she says.

The Education Ministry said in response that "the popular math competition was budgeted by the Technion's national center for math teachers. The ministry did not halt the funding for the national center, which was transferred to the University of Haifa after the latter won the tender."

Ministry officials added that they "welcome every project that promotes students' academic achievements."