A new study based on the latest results of an international mathematics and science test offered bad news and good news: Wealthy students perform on the test as though they have two more years of education than poor students, but countries do not have to sacrifice their international standings on the test to close this performance gap.
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The study, published last week by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment, looks at the results of the 2009 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study test, which Israeli officials came under fire for touting. Its conclusion is that on average, pupils from well-off socioeconomic backgrounds did 88 points better than their classmates who came from weaker socioeconomic backgrounds – a gap comparable to two years of study. Israel has the dubious honor of being one of the countries in which the gap is more than 100 points, alongside Argentina, the United States, Hungary and Dubai.
But the study also shows, perhaps contrary to prevailing beliefs, that countries can promote educational equality without compromising their performance on the TIMSS test.
Professor Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s deputy director for education and skills and the official in charge of PISA, said, “Equality and educational success can be combined. At one time, these two concepts were regarded as contradictory, but today the approach is very different. Inequality can no longer be tolerated. Without basic abilities, the pupil will remain on the fringe of society. These abilities have become the leading indicator not only of financial success, but also of involvement in society in general. They are not luxuries, but necessities.”
“An educational policy that doesn’t encourage equality carries a high price, continued Schleicher – in an interview prior to the Jerusalem Convention for Education, which is being sponsored in part by the Jerusalem municipality and Haaretz and begins Sunday. “There is no reason why social background should be an obstacle to success. There is enough proof that things can be done differently. For example, Poland succeeded in reducing the disparities in its schools by half. Canada also proved that the connection between social background and success in tests could be weakened. This is one of the great challenges of Israel, where the extent of inequality is too great. Nobody denies the differential that exists in Israel, but other countries with similar conditions have succeeded in reducing its effect.”
Some critics have argued that performance on the TIMSS test is overemphasized and should not be the basis for determining national educational success anyway. But Schleicher says the test is an important measuring stick.
“In the dark, all the pupils, teachers, schools and education systems look alike,” he said. “The tests allow us to work together and learn from each other. In a global economy, it’s not enough that we’re better today than we were yesterday, or that we’re better than our neighbors. Rather, we need to see how we fit into the big picture, and the only way to do that is by comparison. Globalization carries enormous potential for improvement.”
When the results of the 2009 PISA test were released in December 2012, Israeli Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel’s performance had leapt in comparison to the previous test administered in 2007. The purported achievement quickly became part of the Likud party’s election campaign. But after just a few days, it was revealed that Education Ministry officials had neglected to mention that the latest TIMSS test was not directly comparable to the previous one.
Still, Israeli students scored relatively high on the test, ranking seventh in mathematics and 13th in science out of students from 42 countries. Will Israel do as well on the most recent TIMSS test administered in 2012? According to Schleicher, there is no guarantee. Whereas the 2009 test focused on students’ abilities to recall what they had been taught, the 2012 test asked on them to apply their knowledge.
Looking forward, Schleicher offered cautious praise for the Education Ministry’s setting of goals for improvement, but said, “It’s just as important to find ways to create a culture of cooperation between parents, teachers and schools. That’s just as important as setting goals, and it’s possible only if there is trust among all involved.”