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Only 44.4 percent of Israeli 17-year-olds earned a matriculation certificate in the 2007-8 school year, a decline of 2 percentage points from the year before, according to figures released yesterday by the Education Ministry.

Four years ago, 49.2 percent of that age group qualified for a matriculation certificate. The current gap between Jews and Arabs is particularly glaring, with 60 percent of Jewish students successfully completing the matriculation exams but only 32 percent of Israeli Arab students.

Of the 116,415 Israeli 17-year-olds, fewer than 80 percent made it to 12th grade and 72 percent took the exams. Although complete information on matriculations in the 2007-8 school year has not yet been released, figures from previous years reveal that only about 85 percent of students earning a matriculation certificate meet the minimum qualifications for university admission.

Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar called the new matriculation statistics "additional evidence of the need for change in the education system." He said one of his ministry's goals for next year is raising the percentage of students who qualify for a matriculation certificate.

At a Tel Aviv news conference yesterday, Education Ministry director general Shimshon Shoshani noted that the latest figures relate to the period of Yuli Tamir's term as education minister. Tamir, for her part, said the success rate on the matriculation exams in the Jewish sector, 60 percent, is among the highest in the world. Shoshani also pointed out that the exam results were stable in the Jewish sector, but were declining in the Arab community. While 95 percent of Jewish 17-year-olds are still in school, 77 percent of Arab students are.

The qualifying rate for a matriculation certificate is about 32 percent for Arab students, compared to the 60 percent for the Jewish community. Four years ago, the rate for Arab students was 40 percent, while the rate for Jews is unchanged.

The research department of Sikkuy, an organization working for equality between the Jewish and Arab communities, said part of the gap is because, on average, Arab students receive 15 percent fewer classroom hours.

The Education Ministry said some of the poorer results stem from the fact that some students don't study for or take the matriculation exams as a matter of principle. Some ultra-Orthodox students are part of this group, as well as Arab teens in East Jerusalem, who are tested according to the Jordanian system.