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Junior high school students' math scores are declining, according to Education Ministry findings published yesterday.

According to the ministry's proficiency index, which gauges test scores, the average Israeli eighth-grader scored 44.1 out of 100 for math.

Participants received poor yet slightly better grades in science and technology as well as English, scoring 56.6 and 58.4 points respectively.

These figures are consistent with the latest rankings issued by TIMSS, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, published last Monday. They show Israel has dropped five spots since the 2003 rankings.

This year, Israel was rated 24th in mathematics (down from 19th in 2003) and 25th in science (23rd in 2003).

The rankings list a total of 49 countries.

The findings attest to wide gaps between Jewish and Arab students, as well as students of different socioeconomic backgrounds. The disparities become even more pronounced as students get older.

"Junior high schools are in a deep crisis," Education Minister Yuli Tamir said. "In order for us to end it, we have to carry out reforms. Unfortunately, because of disputes with teachers' unions, we managed to introduce reforms in only a small number of junior high schools."

Tamir and senior Education Ministry officials blamed the pupils' poor results in part on schools' inability to require junior high-school teachers to attend teaching seminars, because of union opposition.

Union officials responded by claiming that the Education Ministry had failed to carry out their commitment to reinstate study hours and reduce class sizes.

The tests also featured a number of questions on school conditions. Some 15 percent of respondents said they were involved in violent incidents or bullied in the month before the test.

Half of students said they had a close relationship with their teachers.

A third said they dedicated less than one hour to homework every day, yet two-thirds said they were pleased with their school.

Also, about 40 percent of the pupils said they received private tutoring.

Tamir said the drop in Israel's ranking in the TIMSS test does not indicate teaching quality has worsened, because the 2003 test was administered only to students who received special preparation.

Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore were ranked first in mathematics while Taiwan, Singapore and Japan were first in science.

Israeli Jewish students alone would have ranked 19th, while Israeli Arabs would have come in 34th in the world.