Israeli eight grade students suffer academically in a number of areas, according to the recently released results of standardized tests given last year.
In geometry, part of the math test, the average grade was 36; in composition, an element of the English test, the average result was 46; and in Hebrew composition - 56, all out of 100.
"The weakness of our students in geometry has been known for several years; this is the area in need of the most improvement," said Professor Dan Amir of Tel Aviv University, who is a former chairman of the committee of experts that advises the Education Ministry on math studies.
Almost 41,000 eighth-graders were tested in 2008 and approximately 70,000 children in grades two through five.
The children are tested in four main areas: mother-tongue (Hebrew or Arabic), English, math and science and technology.
The scores of the fifth-graders were consistently higher than those of the eighth-graders.
The Education Ministry released the results of the main tests about six weeks ago, but the recent report presents the scores in the subjects that make up each test. For example, the average math score, which was 45, consisted of questions in Algebra, quantitative thinking and geometry, with an average score in the latter of 36. International tests also show that geometry is a weak point with teens.
The English test is another example of how the overall average test score of a subject can mask low grades in the sub-tests that make it up: while the overall average grade was 59, the grade in composition was only 46. Similarly, while the overall grade in Hebrew was 68, the composition grade was 56. The report also notes that half the students scored less than 42 in math.
The national scores also reveal large gaps between Jewish and Arab students, and between the poorer and the better-off, gaps that widen as the students grow older.
"It's hard to reach and help each student in a class of almost 40," a veteran junior high school math teacher in central Israel said. "There is a lot of noise during the lesson and the net teaching time is not much. This means that the stronger students manage by themselves or with private tutors, while the weaker students stay behind."
Amir, who resigned last year as chairman of the math committee, offers another perspective. "Most math teachers did not study math at university," he said. "The concern is that not only do most of the students not know geometry, some of their teachers don't, either."
Under the previous curriculum, students only started geometry in the eighth grade. Dr. Hannah Perl, head of math studies at the Education Ministry, said that teacher training clearly has a major impact on the student's grades in the tests, but that, "we also know that eighth-graders tend to denigrate the importance of the standardized tests."
"We are in a crazy race to finish all the material," a Jerusalem teacher said of the composition section. "There are not enough hours and there is practically no time to seriously work on the students' ability to express themselves. Over the years, the level has gone down slowly but surely."
The supervisor of Hebrew language studies in the Education Ministry, Mazal Shaniak, said the gap between reading comprehension and composition is between 10 and 20 points.
"Composition is a skill acquired later than others," Shaniak said. "You can't learn to write by talking about writing, only by doing it, but most of the lessons are frontal, and therefore there is less time to experience it."
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