Arab and ultra-Orthodox Students in Israel Lagging in English Skills, Report Shows

Only eight percent of Arab and four percent of ultra-Orthodox high school graduates test high enough for exemption from English language courses in undergraduate studies, according to a new report by the Central Bureau of Statistics

Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Interior Minister Aryeh Dery visit an ultra-Orthodox school on the first day of the school year, September 2, 2018.
Yaakov Cohen

A new report by the Central Bureau of Statistics shows that in 2015-16, only 8 percent of Arab high school graduates scored high enough on a proficiency test to be granted an exemption from an English-language course during undergraduate studies, compared to 23 percent of Jewish students overall.

The performance in that area of graduates of ultra-Orthodox Jewish high schools was even worse, with only 4 percent testing out of the English-language requirement, compared to 27 percent in the standard state education system and 11 percent in religious-Zionist high schools.

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According to Ariel Finkelstein of the religious organization Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, the low level of English in religious schools stems from cultural factors that characterize the religious community. “English is considered a foreign language that represents Western culture. The more extreme elements in the community are less exposed to English since they watch fewer English-language movies.” In a study of English proficiency in state religious-Zionist schools, Finkelstein showed that the poor performance is part of a persistent trend that is expressed in the Meitzav standardized tests and matriculation (bagrut) exams.

80 percent of students took a qualifying exam in English in 2016. Their grades ranged from 50 to 150, with an average grade of 107. A grade of 134 was the cut-off for an exemption from taking English in undergraduate studies. Only 21 percent of test-takers earned an exemption. “The standard of English among high school graduates is too low for academic studies,” says Beverley Topaz, who heads the English studies department at the Kibbutzim College. “There’s a great gap in their vocabulary and what is expected of them in higher learning.” Topaz notes that these tests don’t address other aspects associated with knowing a language, such as writing and speaking. Only reading skills are assessed.

There was also a noticeable gap between university and college students, with an average grade of 120 in the former and 100 in the latter. 36 percent of university students were exempt, with only 5 percent making the grade in teacher training colleges. Among those studying to be English teachers, only 9 percent scored high enough for the exemption, with 16 percent scoring very low (under 80).

The highest matriculation grades (119, on average) were attained by those continuing to medical school, with the lowest grades attained by those studying medical administration. In academic colleges, the highest matriculation grades (108) were achieved by students taking computer studies or visual communications, with medical administration students averaging a grade of 87.

Topaz says that not all colleges have entrance exams in English. The Kibbutzim College does have such an exam, with a level considered high compared to other institutions in Israel. She says the Education Ministry and the Council for Higher Education have begun a process of raising admission standards for prospective English teachers and standards in schools, but it will take years before the effects are felt. “The ministry is aware of the shortage of good English teachers, and is funding an accelerated program for students with a very good command of English,” she says.

Topaz adds that a big change is still required, since English studies are only funded from the fourth grade. “Schools starting earlier need to find additional funding. You need more hours in the early years, where the foundation is laid.”