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The proportion of Israeli 17-year-olds eligible for matriculation certificates nation-wide last year was 50.7 percent, 1 percent less than in 2005. This year, for the first time, the Education Ministry recalculated the eligibility figures to include students who took their exams in the winter, raising the eligibility rate to 53.5 percent.

"There is no reason to either rejoice or bemoan," Education Minister Yuli Tamir said on Sunday. "A difference of 1 percent one way or the other has very little significance. There's no need to put so much stock in the matriculation scores."

Sderot students who score lower on their matriculation exams than they did on their combined school work and mock matriculation test scores will have the latter score used as their final grade, Tamir said.

In recent years the Education Ministry has calculated the national eligibility rate as the percentage of 17-year-olds who earned matriculation certificates after the tabulation of the results of the "second sittings," held in the summer. Using that calculation method, the eligibility rate in 2005 was 51.7 percent, while last year it had declined to just 50.7 percent.

This year, however, the ministry decided to change the calculation method, to include the scores achieved by students taking the tests again the following winter, in order to improve their grades.

This additional testing opportunity increased the number of eligible youths by 2,800, and raised the national eligibility rate to 53.5 percent. The Education Ministry subsequently applied the new calculation method to the previous two years' results, thus raising the final figures for them, too. Ministry officials said that the new calculation is not due to a desire to demonstrate higher eligibility rates, but rather to present the final results achieved by the students.

An analysis of the figures reveals that while eligibility rates in the Jewish sector have remained relatively steady for the past three years, hovering around the 59 percent mark for 17-year-olds, students in the Arab sector have suffered a 15-percent decline in eligibility rates, which dropped to just 35.7 percent last year. The eligibility rate among Druze students was 44.4 percent, while only 27.9 percent of 17-year-olds in the Bedouin community were eligible for matriculation certificates. Even so, the figures for these last two groups have improved by 10.9 percent in the past three years.

Another way to examine the figures is to look at the achievements of the 12th graders from different population groups.

This calculation does not take into account the students who dropped out of school, and therefore results in higher eligibility rates. In state education schools, for example the rate was 62.7 percent, slightly higher than the 62.4 percent recorded for graduates of state-religious schools. Even so, the figure for state-religious school students is an improvement over the previous year, when the eligibility rate had declined considerably.