Study: Arab-speaking Students at a Disadvantage When It Comes to Psychometric Exams

Researchers claim disadvantage stems from unique characteristics of Arabic language, which make it more difficult to read and comprehend than Hebrew.

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Arab high school students in Nazareth stayed at home Thursday. (illustrative). Credit: Yaron Kaminsky
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Hebrew speakers can read their native language more quickly than Arabic speakers can read theirs, a new study has found.

The study attributed the difference primarily to the unique characteristics of the Arabic language.

But researchers from the University of Haifa and the National Institute for Testing and Evaluation are at odds over how to solve the problem.

For the past several years, Jewish scores on the psychometric exam, which is the main college entrance exam, have regularly averaged about 100 points above Arab scores. Prof. Rafiq Ibrahim, an expert on learning disabilities from the University of Haifa, said that in light of the new study, the verbal section of the test’s Arabic version should be revised. But researchers from NITE, which prepares the psychometric exam, objected to this proposal.

The study, conducted over the last three years, examined the speed and efficacy with which Hebrew and Arabic speakers read texts in their native languages. The texts were taken from two standardized tests, the psychometric exam and the international PISA exam.

Arabic, unlike Hebrew, is a diglossic language, meaning the oral language is different from the written (literary) one. The difference between spoken and written Arabic is so great, the researchers wrote, “that acquisition of the written language could be defined as acquiring a second language” – which in turn could influence “the development of linguistic mechanisms necessary for reading.”

Another difference is that Arabic orthography – meaning the shape of the letters and the use of diacritical marks – is more complex than that of Hebrew, making it harder to read.

The psychometric exam requires a lot of reading in both English and the test-taker’s mother tongue. It includes some 130 questions on six texts of about 450 words each; there’s also an essay question. Thus someone who reads more slowly will have more trouble handling the test – not only because of time constraints, Ibrahim said, but because slower reading impedes understanding, whereas “automatic reading frees up attention for higher-level tasks.”

The study encompassed 119 students, half of them Arabic speakers. The students took cognitive tests, read words and texts aloud and also read one text silently.

This is one of the first studies to examine differences in reading ability among adults who have already mastered their mother tongue, as opposed to children.

The researchers found that, on average, Arabic speakers need seven seconds longer than Hebrew speakers to read 200 words aloud, while reading a 200-word text silently takes them about 16 seconds longer. And not only do Hebrew speakers read faster, but they also read more accurately, the study found.

These gaps cannot be explained by cognitive differences among the students or by other variables like parental education or socioeconomic status, the researchers said.

“The difference in reading efficiency stems from the differing speed of deciphering words in each language, something that’s apparently directly connected to the orthographic structure of the Arabic language and the fact that it’s a diglossic language,” Ibrahim said. “Reading in Arabic simply doesn’t reach the requisite level of automation, as it does for Hebrew or English readers.”

Nevertheless, the impact of Arabic’s unique characteristics on the psychometric exam could be mitigated, he said. One way to do this would be to stop using texts translated from English or Hebrew on the Arabic exam, since this “exacts a double price from Arabic speakers: Not only are texts translated into Arabic about 16 percent longer than the original text, requiring a longer time to process, but the chosen content isn’t always appropriate to the test-takers’ cultural world. It wouldn’t hurt to think about building a test for Arab students in which time would be less of a factor.”

Without such adaptations, Ibrahim added, the test won’t serve the purpose universities want it to serve – “as an objective tool for examining academic skills.”

But Dr. Anat Ben-Simon of NITE, who also participated in the study, argued that the differences the researchers found aren’t “all that significant,” and therefore don’t require altering the psychometric exam.

“We’re aware of Arabic speakers’ complaints about the exam, and therefore, we decided two years ago that the number of verbal reasoning questions on the Arabic version would be one-third less than on the Hebrew version,” she said.

Regarding the content issue, Ben-Simon said the texts are taken from fields in the humanities and social sciences. “We don’t take texts from the world of Jewish or Arab society, but neutral ones,” she said. “It’s regrettable if an Arab child has never encountered a philosophical text, but you must remember that he’ll have to deal with texts like that in academia. If we have to guess who will succeed in university, the right way isn’t to test fields the future students have already mastered.”

“Adding five minutes to the test won’t substantially change the grades,” she added. “It might make it a bit easier and add a few points, but it won’t erase that 100-point gap.”

But Ibrahim disagreed. Under the current format, he argued, some Arab students are missing the grade cutoffs for their desired department “for reasons that have more to do with the test itself than with their academic abilities.”

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