Gideon Sa’ar
Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar. Photo by Emil Salman
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The percentage of 17-year-olds who passed their matriculation exams rose by 2.2 percent last year to 48.3 percent, according to preliminary figures released yesterday by the Education Ministry. The number of 12th-graders also increased, along with the number of students sitting for the exams in both the Jewish and the Arab school systems, the ministry also said.

Calling the figures "good and encouraging," Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar said they reversed the decline in achievements of previous years.

Sa'ar said the education system should aspire to cross the 50 percent mark in eligibility for matriculation.

According to the figures, 82.3 percent of 17-year-olds are enrolled in the 12th grade, and 73.7 percent of these students sat for the exams. The total number of 17-year-olds, 120,000, includes some 5,700 teens from East Jerusalem and approximately 16,000 ultra-Orthodox teens. Most of the latter do not study in institutions where matriculation exams are offered.

According to Sa'ar, the rise in the three parameters - percentage of students, percentage of students sitting for the exam, and the pass rate - is the greatest improvement in the past decade. Over the last two years, the pass rate has gone up 3.9 percent.

Sa'ar, at a press conference in Tel Aviv, chalked up the improved figures "first and foremost to the fact that we have set a clear system of objectives." Sa'ar also attributed increased success to tutoring programs and the lack of teachers' strikes over the past two years.

Education Ministry director general Shimshon Shoshani said: "We are more strict about utilizing school days and classroom hours, which are becoming more significant."

The preliminary nature of the figures presented yesterday means they do not include, for example, the percentage of students who passed their matriculation exams but do not meet the requirements for admittance to college or university. Also not included yesterday are the per-community success rates, which would reveal socioeconomic gaps.

Analysis of the figures for the past five years do not show that gaps are closing between Jewish and Arab students. While the success rate in matriculation exams among Jewish students is on the rise, from 56.9 percent in 2005 to 64.6 percent last year, the success rate in the Arab sector rose only from 36.1 percent to 38.3 percent. Those figures do not include East Jerusalem or the ultra-Orthodox.

According to the Education Ministry leadership, the improvements are particularly significant in light of demographic changes: Between 2004 and 2010, the number of students who are not ultra-Orthodox has risen from 11.8 percent to 18 percent, and the number of non-Jewish students has risen from 17.3 percent to 21.9 percent.

"The gaps are still significant, and there's still a lot to do, but the system is undergoing a positive transformation," Sa'ar said.

"The gaps are still significant...but the system is changing for the better," Sa'ar said.

The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee for educational affairs said the gaps between Jewish and Arab students "is the direct result of under-funding of Arab education. The Education Ministry must fully implement the recommendations of the committees of experts set up jointly by us and the ministry."