Ethiopian Children in Israel Given 'Fake Grades' to Hide Educational Gaps

Students permitted to attend private religious school but not take exams.

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Ethiopian immigrants in Petah Tikva fought many battles to get their children into religious and other prestigious schools in the city. Currently, four years after the battles were won, it seems that at least one of the schools, “Darchei Noam,” accepted Ethiopian students but did not do much more than that. The students attend classes, but do not participate in exams and their grades do not reflect their accomplishments. In effect, the school has given up on them.

Darchei Noam is considered one of the most prestigious religious schools in Petah Tikva, and its graduates can expect to continue on to the best junior high schools. This week, some students explained that during test times children of Ethiopian descent are told to leave the classroom. Generally they go to the library to do worksheets while their classmates take the tests. Until now, these students have been given “personalized” grades, which are too high and do not reflect their level in relation to the class or the subject matter. When these students try to get into junior high schools they are unsuccessful despite their high grades, and they don’t understand why.

Reports of different treatment for students of Ethiopian descent have also reached various organizations that provide assistance for the school. One such organization admitted that they had been aware of the practice of removing Ethiopian students from the classroom during exams.

“It started two years ago,” said one of the students. “They told us, ‘Ethiopians, go to the library when the teachers gives tests in English, math and geography.” According to the student, this order is explicitly given to students of Ethiopian descent. “We didn’t ask why we need to go the library while the other students stayed in the classroom,” she said. “I thought they wanted to help us. They give us worksheets, then we go back to class.”

During the previous school year, as some of the students tried to get into junior high school they were met with rejection from many Petah Tikva schools that refused to accept Ethiopian students from Darchei Noam with high grades, after a short exam reflected the lack of correlation between their grades and their academic abilities.

Some of the younger children at Darchei Noam said that they are not taken out of the classroom during exams, but one employee in the education system says that they are just too young to know what is going on. “It happens in different classes at Darchei Noam, and in other places in Israel. It’s just not talked about.

“No one denies that there are educational gaps between the Ethiopian and the Israeli students," said the education system employee. "The question is how they’re dealt with. At Darchei Noam, in many subjects they don’t let the students take the tests like everyone else because they assume that they are unable. The students are happy to get good grades or positive feedback, and the parents are satisfied. But it’s a time bomb that goes off when the children advance to middle school.”

One employee at an educational foundation that assists students of Ethiopian descent stated that the practice of grading Ethiopian students “in relation to themselves” is a dangerous practice that will prevent the educational gaps between them and veteran Israeli students from ever being closed. “Genuine exams would reveal the depth of these gaps, and then someone else would demand that the schools take care of them. Giving fake grades is a way to evade this,” said the employee.

The Darchei Noam school was founded in the early 1980s by groups of parents who wanted to provide their children with a more Torah-oriented education. Another version of the story is that a growing population of Mizrahi students from the more impoverished neighborhoods of the city pushed the parents to open the school, which receives 75% of its funds from the government. Currently, there are some 700 students at the school, including 50 of Ethiopian descent.

Darchei Noam’s principle, Rabbi Hagai Unger, rejects these claims. According to Unger, taking children out of the classroom has no connection to their ethnicity. “Everyone sits together and takes tests together,” says Unger, “but the question is, what is the level of learning? If there is a fifth-grader who is at a first-grade level, then he shouldn’t take a math test [with his classmates.] I’ve got excellent Ethiopian students, and I’ve got weaker Israeli students as well, and they won’t take exams with their classes. If someone’s going to the library, it’s not because they are Ethiopian but because they’re on a different academic level.”

Four years ago, Darchei Noam, along with two other schools in Petah Tikva, refused to accept dozens of Ethiopian students, claiming that they had an insufficient level of Torah education. The previous education minister, Gideon Sa’ar, threatened to cut off government funding for the schools and forced them to accept the students.

Ziva Mekonen-Dagu, vice president of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, says that “these children are educationally abandoned, no one is working for them. The private schools receive funding from the Education Ministry, but there is no oversight. The government decided to send our children to schools like these. It’s their responsibility to investigate what is going there.”

Unger also mentioned that the Ethiopian students have been provided with special assistance to help close the educational gaps. “As a principal, I will not let any child receive a grade of 20 or 40 on their report card. I don’t want them to feel as if they’ve failed. We have entrance exams for every student. I won’t take Israelis [on a lower level], but I take Ethiopians because otherwise I’ll be called racist. But it’s not right, educationally. Children like these need a great deal of assistance from the Education Ministry to help close the gaps. In a private school, with students who have been immersed in the material for years, its just not practical.”

In 2010, however, following the three schools' refusal to admit Ethiopian students due to their low level or Torah education, the Supreme Court decided that a lack of specialized education is not sufficient reason to reject a potential student.

In response, the Education Ministry stated that it “sees itself as committed to providing true equal opportunities for students of Ethiopian descent,” and committed to investigating the situation at Darchei Noam.

Ethiopian students protesting near a Petah Tikva school in 2011. They were eventually accepted - but their education still lags behind.Credit: David Sheen

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