When It Comes to Math Tests, It's Who You Count

Or Kashti
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Or Kashti

Veteran educators can't remember the last time Israeli pupils' scores skyrocketed by as huge a margin as they did Tuesday on two major international achievement exams.

According to results released yesterday, students demonstrated exceptional improvement, jumping 17 places in the math rankings in the Trends in International Math and Science Study exam, and 12 places in the science rankings; and zooming up 13 places in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study exam.

Only four years ago, when the previous TIMSS scores were announced, Prof. Michal Beller, director of the Israeli National Authority for Measurement and Evaluation in Education, declared that "from the perspective of multiyear trends, educational systems don't rise or crash dramatically." But yesterday, at an Education Ministry press conference at which senior officials celebrated the new results, Beller spoke differently. The improvement in the educational system is substantive and real, she said.

A careful reading of the ministry's detailed presentation of the test results shows that not all is rosy, however. Consider the implication of the following sentence: "The sampling framework [for the exam] is parallel to that of previous research cycles (without the ultra-Orthodox and without special education schools )." That's apparently the only ministry comment on the question of who gets tested - and who doesn't.

The full reports from the international sources tell us more: On the TIMSS test, 22.6 percent of Israel's relevant age group was not included in the sampling, while on the PIRLS test, 24.6 percent was not included.

Of the many countries that participated in the two tests, none come even close to Israel's ratio of nonparticipants; in most countries, some 95 percent of the relevant age group was tested. Given the forecasts regarding the continued growth of the Haredi educational system, it could be that celebrating the improved achievement of Israeli pupils is somewhat self-delusional.

Another reason for caution stems from the difference between the TIMSS test and the better-known Program for International Student Assessment exams, administered by the OECD.

The TIMSS tests are based on the science and math curricula of the participating countries, with an eye to creating a test that addresses the broadest common denominator. In other words, the TIMSS examines how well the pupils have absorbed what they've been taught.

By contrast, the PISA exams examine the extent to which pupils have acquired general thinking skills and understanding of the topics tested (reading, math and sciences ) in a way that enables them to cope with their environment - not necessarily how well they've absorbed specific information they've already learned.

The latest PISA test was administered in March of this year and its results are expected in about a year. In the 2009 test, Israel's overall ranking was 36 of the 64 countries tested.

Many educational experts say the PISA test is more important than the TIMSS.

"It's more important to know if pupils have the tools and knowledge needed to cope with the world around us," said one university source. "The curricula on which the TIMSS is based are not necessarily appropriate for the 21st century."

Finally, it bears noting that the gaps in scores between Jewish pupils from better-off communities and those from poorer homes have remained nearly unchanged in the time between this TIMSS test and the preceding one. These gaps - 72 points on average in math and 65 points in science - are extremely large. As for Arab pupils, the performance gaps between better-off and poorer students actually doubled over four years.

What's needed is more "core" studies like math.Credit: Alon Ron

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