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High-school students taking matriculation (bagrut) exams in geography and chemistry next year will be required to answer more questions testing their comprehension and analytical skills, rather than spitting back information, say Education Ministry officials.

For instance, a geography question on decreasing agriculture in Israel could ask students to argue for and against it, and to give their opinion.

Ministry officials are also considering adding a section to the history exam that would test students on previously unseen material and making the unseen section of the literature exam count for more.

"The big advantage of unseen is that it's impossible to memorize the right answer," said Prof. Anat Zohar, who heads the Education Ministry's pedagogic secretariat.

The initiative, a four-year effort to increase gradually the amount of "thought questions" so they will constitute two-thirds of all test questions, was spurred by criticism that the matriculation exams currently focus too much on memorized information. The matriculation exam changes are part of a new pedagogic policy aimed at focusing on comprehension and thinking skills rather than rote memorization.

In addition, a group of Mandel Leadership Institute graduates are calling for cutting the number of matriculation exams down to three - in English, math and language (or civics). Under their proposal, which was submitted to Education Minister Yuli Tamir two weeks ago, the students would take non-standardized exams in the other subjects, which would be written by their teachers and approved by authorized officials.

The group said in its position paper that the schools invest most of their time in preparing their students for the matriculation exams. "One of the most serious results of this is the fostering of the instrumental approach to studies," the position paper said.

The Education Ministry initiative means that the matriculation exams will now require students to synthesize the material they have studied and occasionally to give their own analysis, through the use of more open questions that have more than one right answer. Such questions will be graded on the basis of the the students' thought process, as evidenced by the arguments they use to bolster their conclusion.

The Education Ministry plans to hold a special workshop to train the educators who write the exams in how to meet the new policy. Sample questions will be published at the beginning of the next school year to prepare the students for the changes.

Ministry officials said they were concerned the changes could put some of the students under pressure, because they are used to the exam structure. "You can't make such major changes in the exams without preparing the students appropriately," said Zohar.