Elite Tel Aviv Schools to Become Less Picky, More Populist

Entry exams for two prestigious schools dropped after numerous complaints about merit of testing 5 year olds.

Or Kashti
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The Nature School in Tel Aviv.Credit: Nir Kafri
Or Kashti

After a long public battle, city officials have agreed to end the stringent selection process, including rigorous entry exams for 5 year olds, at two of Tel Aviv’s most prestigious magnet schools, in favor of a lottery among applicants who pass an admission test. The minimum acceptable grade will be set each year by the municipality and the Education Ministry.

This represents a dramatic change for the School for Nature, Environment and Society and the Art School, which draw students from all over the city. For years, with support from the municipality, both schools put first-graders through a rigorous application process. That violated Education Ministry rules, yet the ministry never enforced them.

But finally, “after many years the penny dropped, even for the city’s leaders,” a municipal source said. “There’s no justification for subjecting children to tests before first grade. On the other hand, because of the high demand some kind of selection process had to be created. The compromise is minimal screening and holding a lottery.”

Founded in the mid-1980s, both schools charge annual tuition of thousands of shekels above the standard school fees. But it was the demanding admittance exams to which they subjected 5 year olds that particularly aroused public ire.

Critics claimed that exams at such a young age have no scientific validity, that there is no consensus on how to measure, say, “love of nature,” and that what the exams actually measured was the students’ social and cultural background.

Indeed, data from the most recent Meitzav – a nationwide assessment test – showed that all of the Nature School’s 58 fifth graders came from strong socioeconomic backgrounds, as did 63 out of 66 fifth graders at the Art School.

The schools and municipality countered that the entry exams were necessary because the number of applicants far exceeded the number of available places. One source said that three to four applicants are rejected for every one that’s accepted.

Moreover, a city official said, the schools “aren’t suited to everyone,” so the exams “tested the students’ willingness and ability to invest great effort.”

A few years ago, the city attempted to mute the criticism by giving less weight to the exam and more to group workshops attended by potential students. Nevertheless, the acceptance process still suffered from a lack of transparency.

For the past year or two, representatives of the schools, the municipality and the ministry have been meeting in an effort to find “the lesser evil,” as one source put it.

The resultant compromise allows the entry exams to continue, but seeks to minimize the impact of students’ socioeconomic background by holding a lottery among all who earn a minimum score on the test.

In addition, various criteria were set for the exams. At the Art School, for instance, they will focus on artistic ability and won’t include any of the components of standard IQ tests.

The compromise also stipulates that 30 percent of the schools’ student body must be from “weaker population groups” – a rule that existed previously, but hasn’t been upheld, due mainly to students dropping out before ninth grade. In addition, the ministry must make information about the schools available in languages other than Hebrew, including Arabic, Russian and Amharic.

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