Study: Secular Students Outscore Religious on Psychometric Exam

Students at religious state schools lag way behind secular kids in English, but best them on verbal reasoning.

Yarden Skop
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High school students in Ramat Gan.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Yarden Skop

Graduates of the secular school system do better on the psychometric exam than their counterparts in the religious system, and males overall do better than females, but the gender gaps among religious school graduates are much wider than among secular school graduates, a new study shows.

The comprehensive study, conducted by Ariel Finkelstein at the behest of the religious-Zionist Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah movement with the assistance of the Trump Foundation, surveyed the achievements of the graduates of both school systems from 2000 to 2012. Over these years, the average score of the secular graduates was 576.66 (out of 800), while the religious school graduates averaged a score of 554.15, a difference of 22 points.

The psychometric exam is a heavily weighted component of the application process for institutions of higher education.

Secular students scored an average 13 points higher on the English part of the exam than their religious counterparts, although this didn’t surprise the researchers. “With regard to the English section, these gaps are not unique to the psychometric exam. A previous study we conducted pointed to large gaps in English between state school pupils and state-religious school pupils at all stages of education – from the Meitzav achievement tests conducted in elementary and middle schools, through the matriculation exams in high school.”

On the quantitative reasoning section, the gap was smaller, but the secular graduates still did 4 points better on average. On the verbal reasoning section, the religious graduates did slightly better than the secular, scoring 0.8 points more on average.

In both the religious and secular sectors, some 50 percent of pupils from middle-class backgrounds sit the psychometric exam. In contrast, the percentage of poor students who take the exam is far higher among religious graduates (32 percent vs. only 13 percent of secular graduates). Among wealthier students, the percentage of secular students who sit for the exam is greater (some 36 percent compared to 20 percent of religious graduates).

The study reveals important gender gaps among the religious school students: In essence, most of the score gaps between the religious and secular test-takers stem from the scores of the religiously educated girls. A comparison of the boys’ scores shows that in the early 2000s, there was a gap of 10 to 20 points in favor of the secular graduates. However, that gap narrowed over the years until it was totally closed during the years 2010-2012. A comparison of the girls’ scores in both sectors shows that the secular girls’ scores remained consistently better by 25-30 points.

The relatively low achievements by religious girls on the psychometric exam stands in marked contrast to their scores on the Meitzav achievement tests and the matriculation exams. On the Meitzav tests, in the secular schools boys do better in math and science; there is gender equality in English; and girls do better in Hebrew language studies.

In religious schools, however, while boys do better in math and science in fifth grade, girls do better in these subjects in eighth grade. In English, girls consistently do better than boys, and they do much better in Hebrew language studies.

The girls also retain this advantage with regard to the matriculation exams. Religious high school students do well on the matriculation exams, but girls earn matriculation certificates at higher rates than boys. And yet the picture is reversed when it comes to the psychometric exam.

Finkelstein said more research would be needed to understand these gender gaps on the psychometric exam. He speculated that religious boys’ more intense study of Talmud and other Jewish subjects might help them do better on the verbal reasoning sections than girls.

However, Shmuel Shetah, director of Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, seemed pretty certain about the reason for the gaps. “Obviously it’s not an issue of knowledge or intelligence, but [related to] what they want to study in university. If girls want to study a profession that doesn’t need a high psychometric score, they will invest less [effort]. In religious society, girls are more interested in majors that don’t require a high score, like education and social work. We assume this seeps in from the beginning.

“The [religious] educational system doesn’t push girls to be high-tech workers; the culture puts having a family and work that goes well with raising a family as a top priority,” added Shetah. “A career ostensibly contradicts this. It’s not that they tell women in religious education to ‘Stay home and shut up,’ but there is a perception that a career undermines taking care of the family.”

Shetah described the large gaps in the English scores between religious and secular students as “a significant social and cultural problem that is broader than the quality of state-religious education. Religious children are less exposed to the English language. In my opinion, this problem won’t be resolved just by adding study hours – there’s a need for a change of approach.”

As for the general gap between the two sectors, Shetah believes that, too, is the result of social perceptions in religious society. “We have a trend toward excellence in the military realm, which did not exist 15-20 years ago, but it was turned into a challenge. Religious society has also made it a challenge to push for significant positions in the media: [the late] Uri Orbach used to encourage young religious people toward this.

“On the other hand, achievements in the sciences and excellence in academia have lost their charm and prestige, and I hope that will change. Religious society, which thinks its primary investment must be in values, perceives ambition as something that comes at the expense of values. The belief that there’s a contradiction between morality and ambitiousness is apparently more widespread in religious society. But it’s important to say that, today, Zionism isn’t about draining the swamps; it’s about going to the best university and inventing the next USB flash drive or Iron Dome.”

Shetah believes a change for the better is in the offing. “Today, there is significant focus and mobilization in the state-religious schools in the fields of sciences and English, so I expect an increase in achievements on the psychometric exam and the matriculation exams.”

For the purpose of comparison, the gaps between religious and secular students with regard to matriculation do not seem to be as great as indicated by psychometric exam results. In 2013, for example, 72 percent of religious pupils who sat the matriculation exams earned a matriculation certificate, compared to 74 percent of secular pupils. In math, 9 percent of religious school students took five units, compared to 11 percent of secular pupils, while the four-unit exam was taken by 21.5 percent of religious pupils and 18.6 percent of secular students.