Ethiopian Israeli High Schoolers Lag in All Fields, Data Shows

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Children from Ethiopian families at play. Credit: Nir Keidar

High school students of Ethiopian origin perform worse than other students in every educational category, according to a new report by the Brookdale Institute. The report, based on Education Ministry data, shows major gaps between students of Ethiopian heritage and those from other Israeli communities in every educational category, including standardized tests, dropout rates and the high school graduation exam.

Moreover, the fact that 60 percent of the students with Ethiopian roots were born in Israel and had all their schooling in the country has not closed the gap, the study shows.

The new research, which was published a few weeks ago, is a continuation of a study that was conducted around 10 years ago. Contrary to conventional wisdom at the time, the previous report showed that the educational achievements of students of Ethiopian origin born in Israel were not very different from those born in Ethiopia.

The situation has not necessarily improved in the years since: The new report showed that in the Meitzav, a nationwide standardized test administered to eighth-graders, Ethiopian students born in Israel achieved higher scores than those born in Ethiopia. (The average mark in the Hebrew language section of the test was 48 points for the former as opposed to 38 points for the latter.) However, more boys of Ethiopian heritage born in Israel were prone to risky behavior than boys born in Ethiopia.

This finding “continues to raise a great deal of concern,” the report states diplomatically. Activists in the Ethiopian Israeli community define it differently: failure.

The study, conducted in 2015, focused on 18,000 high school students with Ethiopian heritage. It revealed that gaps between boys and girls were much greater than gender differences in the Israeli population in general or in other countries. The research also showed that the differences between boys born in Ethiopia and their Israel-born counterparts with Ethiopian roots were much greater than the differences between Ethiopian-born girls and those of Ethiopian origin born in Israel.

For example, the average grades that girls of Ethiopian origin received in English, math and Hebrew were some five to ten points higher than those of the boys (but still 20 to 25 points lower than other Israeli high school students).

The gaps grew as the kids approached the end of their schooling: Some 60 percent of girls of Ethiopian heritage received high school matriculation certificates, while only 45 percent of the boys did. The gap persists to higher education: About 37 percent of Ethiopian young women meet the minimum university entry standards while only 24 percent of the young men do.

Once again, the gaps are large as compared to the general population: Almost 60 percent of students not of Ethiopian background meet the minimum requirements for entry to universities.

The figures are based on Education Ministry data from 2013 to 2015.

One of the most important figures is the dropout rate, which is 12 percent for boys of Ethiopian background, as opposed to 0.2 percent for the girls. This gap is large when compared with students who are not of Ethiopian origin.

Eleven percent of the boys from Ethiopian families reported they had no motivation to study, compared to five percent of the girls. But in both cases, that rate is almost double the figure for other students.

The study found that students of Ethiopian background, whether born in Ethiopia or in Israel, had similar feelings about their ability to study, their desire to continue to higher education, not having anyone to turn to for help at school and enduring ridicule and getting into fights because of their ethnicity.

One explanation for the persistence of educational gaps, as concluded by 13 officials in various positions in government ministries and social activists from the Ethiopian community, is the neighborhoods where many of these teens live. These areas were described by participants in the study as “ghettos of Ethiopian immigrants and the poor,” characterized by weak schools and less skilled teachers. Among other things, they lack enrichment activities.

“There is no basis for the expectation that native-born students will go through the whole Israeli education system and suddenly succeed,” says David Maharat of the Society for Advancement of Education, who has worked for many years assisting students from Ethiopian families. "We have to remember that the encounter with Israeli society, which also includes racism and discrimination, has a major impact.” According to Maharat, most of these children grow up in families which have had difficulty integrating, “usually on the social and geographical periphery. The fact that they were born in Israel doesn’t ensure anything.”

According to social activist Efrat Yardai, government ministries "love to talk about multicultural training, but that’s foolishness; it sounds good, everybody hugging, but there’s no need for it Instead of wasting resources on needless programs that have failed and inventing new programs that aren’t relevant, they should see to it that these students simply get the resources they deserve.”

The Education Ministry responded that it “conducts continuous oversight and monitoring of students’ achievements, including those of Ethiopian origin. We will also study the data in the current research.” The ministry also said it was operating a “national program in a new format that will provide equal responses to all populations where there are gaps, focusing on gender gaps."

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