Politicians Too Quick to Tout Boost in Israeli Education, Say Experts

Leading experts on education say Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu overstated the significance of an improvement in Israeli students' test scores.

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Boasting by Israeli politicians about a dramatic improvement in the performance of Israeli students is baseless, according to leading education experts.

The results of the latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, known as the TMISS test, published in December, ranked Israeli students seventh in mathematics and 13th in science among students from 42 countries. In the previous exam, given to eighth graders in 2007, Israeli students ranked 24th in mathematics and 25th in science.

Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar and later Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touted Israel's leap in the standings as a major victory for the country's education system.

But at a recent meeting, key members of the supreme professional council at the Israeli National Authority for Measurement and Evaluation – known by its Hebrew acronym RAMA and consisting of top experts on measurement and evaluation in education – criticized what they considered to be the Education Ministry head's hasty use of the test results. Members of the council said that RAMA Director-General Michal Beller had requested that the criticism voiced at the meeting not be publicized at the moment.

Following the release of the test results in December, Sa’ar said that “the achievement by Israel’s students on the tests expresses a revolution. Israel’s students have made the greatest leap forward since Israel joined the international tests.”

A few hours later, Netanyahu made an unusual appearance at an Education Ministry management meeting and congratulated Sa'ar, saying, "I think there is an extraordinary achievement here for the Education Ministry.” The Likud party, to which both Sa'ar and Netanyahu belong, has also made use of the test results in its election campaign.

Premature exclamations?

But Haaretz reported a few days later that Education Ministry leaders knew all along that the 2007 and 2011 test results could not be meaningfully compared, as the International Association for the Evaluation of Education Achievement, which administers the test, explicitly states.

Beller at the time called the criticism “a programmatic attempt to minimize the tremendous achievement by Israel’s students.”

The professional committee's comments call into question this characterization.  

“The achievements were described by the Education Ministry as ‘a leap forward,’ a ‘huge stride ahead’ and a ‘revolution’ in Israel. To the best of my professional knowledge, the use of these descriptions is exaggerated, if not totally unfounded,” said RAMA scientific committee member Baruch Nevo, a professor in the University of Haifa psychology department.

He said the results of the 2007 test somewhat underestimated Israel's education system, given the teacher's strike that year and problems with translating the test questions from English to Hebrew, among other issues. As a result, the comparison between the two tests is “a kind of deception like the comparison of the achievements of a runner who ran for the first time with a sprained ankle and a second time, a few months later, with totally healthy legs. Someone who didn’t know about the condition of his ankle in the first run could form the impression of ‘amazing leap forward’ in the runner’s ability. The Education Ministry knew that very well.”

According to another member of the committee, “In 2007, there were circumstances that did not contribute to the knowledge of the real state of the education system. Just as at that time there was no need to get depressed, now there is no justification for euphoria.” Moreover, he said, “It is clear there was intensive preparation in advance of the test in 2011, but it is less clear which parts of the preparation were ended after the test.”

The Education Ministry said no such changes have taken place.

Cramming for the test

Nevo said some preparations for the test, like changing the mathematics curriculum to suit the exam, could be considered legitimate, assuming the test's curriculum was found to be an improvement on that of the Israeli education system. Other preparations, he said, would be clearly illegitimate.

“If in the course of two or three months prior to the test, special preparations were made only in the eighth grade that participated in the exam, this is almost tantamount to a falsification, because they make the achievements on the TIMSS sample unrepresentative of the system as a whole. I do not have evidence in my possession of such prior preparation, but it is incumbent on the Education Ministry to check this, to the level of the individual teacher,” he said.

In contrast to Nevo and other members of the committee, Miriam Ben-Peretz, a professor at Haifa University and an Israel Prize for Education Research laureate, said, “There are all kinds of ways to explain the achievements, but the improvement is real and this is a very important conclusion. The comparison between 2007 and 2011 is valid and it is necessary to appreciate the big investment the Education Ministry and the Finance Ministry have made in improving the achievements. Serious inputs lead to achievements.”

According to a number of people who participated in the supreme professional council meeting where the criticisms were voiced, the discussion was professional.

“Her [Beller's] request was not to reveal things that are still under discussion,” explains one committee member. However, he notes, “The use the politicians made of the test results was clear to everyone, even if they didn’t say so explicitly.”

The Education Ministry responded, “The discussion in the recent committee meeting revolved around the interpretation of the empirical findings in the international studies and the analyses done by RAMA. Professor Nevo’s remarks came up in the framework of various questions discussed at the meeting. The discussion in the committee has not yet been completed and therefore neither has the writing of the full report on the results of the study, which will be published upon its completion.”

Netanyahu and Sa'ar announcing Israel's performance on the international math and science test in December.Credit: Emil Salman

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