Boys in Religious Zionist System Score Lowest on International Test Among Israel's Jewish Schools

Former official says religious schools have less general studies, waste resources due to gender segregation, and emphasize teachers' values over professionalism

Shira Kadari-Ovadia
Shira Kadari-Ovadia
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File photo: Students at a school in Be'er Sheva, 2018.
File photo: Students at a school in Be'er Sheva, 2018.Credit: Ami Erlich

Boys in religious Zionist high schools recorded the lowest average scores on the 2018 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, among Israel’s Jewish school systems.

The performance of girls in religious Zionist high schools was below that of their peers in “regular” government schools and in ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools. The scores of Haredi boys were not included in the results because so few took the PISA.

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In math, girls in nonreligious state schools got the highest average score, 493, followed by girls in Haredi schools (485) and in religious Zionist schools (478).

The average in math for boys in religious Zionist schools was the lowest of all Jewish school systems in which the exams were administered, at 476. According to the editors of the test, a gap of 30 points means the low scorers are around a year behind in their skills.

In reading, the boys in religious Zionist schools got the lowest average score, 469. In this area, the Haredi girls scored the highest, 527 points, while the average score for students of both sexes in the secular schools was 509 (compared to 495 for religious schools).

In science, the results were similar: Boys in religious Zionist schools scored lowest among schools where the language of instruction is Hebrew — in other words, Jewish schools, at 471. The combined average for boys and girls in state secular schools was 498, 16 points above their peers in religious Zionist schools (482).

The scores of students in religious Zionist schools were lower even though religious junior high and high schools receive the highest average budgets per student in the educational system.

According to a new study by the Knesset, the average cost for a student in the religious Zionist system is 36 percent higher than the national average, while in the Hebrew-language state system the outlay is only 5 percent higher. In the Arabic-language state schools, the average cost per student is 17 percent lower than the national average, while in the Haredi system it’s 20 percent lower.

One reason for the higher funding for the religious Zionist schools is that these students are committed to a higher number of study units for the matriculation exams (including an exam in Oral Torah and three units of Bible, instead of two in the secular schools).

In addition, religious schools receive allocations for a rabbi on staff and for enhanced Jewish studies for the matriculation tests. The study also found that in the religious Zionist system there are more small schools than in the general population, and the per-capita funding for small schools is higher than for large schools.

“Religious students have less general studies than secular ones,” a former senior Education Ministry official told Haaretz, in an effort to explain the lower achievements. “Principals are under pressure from parents to devote more hours to Jewish studies at the expense of general studies hours.”

According to this person, who asked not to be identified, religious students get little benefit from the additional funding provided to their schools because of the segregation between boys and girls, which means the school’s resources must be divided among a larger number of classes.

Moreover, in some communities sex segregation leads to classes that are smaller than the standard required by the Education Ministry to receive sufficient teaching or enrichment hours.

“A lot of resources are wasted because of sex segregation,” he said. “If you split a group of 40 students into two separate classes, boys and girls, the students will get fewer class hours because they are nonstandard classes.”

The former official also attributed the lower achievements in religious schools to the level of the teachers. He says that in the religious system, preference is given to “teachers who can educate toward [the system’s] values, who will know how to communicate with the pupil in his language. There is less emphasis on professionalism and academic excellence. In the Religious Education Administration there is an emphasis on values, volunteerism, meaningful prayer and mitzvah observance. That’s important, but the main mandate of schools is pedagogy, and that’s less appreciated.”

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the average psychometric exam score for teachers in the religious Zionist school system dropped from 509 in 2008 to 501 in 2017. In those same years, the average score for teachers in the Hebrew-language secular schools rose from 503 to 513.

Even controlling for socioeconomic differences, the performance of students in religious Zionist schools was below that of their peers in secular schools. In each socioeconomic grouping (weak, middle-class or strong), the achievements of the religious school students were lower than those of their secular counterparts. In the weak and middle-class groups, the gap averaged 29 points.

The PISA exams, which are coordinated every three years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, were taken in 2018 by over half a million 15-year-olds in 79 countries. In Israel they were taken by a representative sample of 6,623 students in 174 schools.

According to the test organizers, the aim is to ascertain the degree to which the teens have acquired the knowledge and thinking skills to cope successfully with their environment. The exam tests skills such as drawing conclusions and applying knowledge in different contexts.

The computerized test was given in Israel in March 2018 by external testers. Most of those sitting for the test were in 10th grade. The answers were checked by four different examiners, and in the event there was a large gap between the scores each of them assigned an answer, the answer was checked again.

Only six schools for ultra-Orthodox boys allowed pupils to take the test, so the results cannot show anything about their abilities as a group. Haredi girls’ schools were much more cooperative, but the questionnaire was changed, with questions that “contradict their values” removed.