Israel Slumps in International Literacy-skills Study, Falling 11 Places

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Students reading from computer screens at an Israeli school.
Students reading from computer screens at an Israeli school. Credit: Nir Keidar

Israel slumped in a 2016 international test examining students’ reading skills in their mother tongue, ranking 29th out of 50 countries – a drop of 11 places compared to a similar test five years earlier.

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) featured a representative national sample of 4,000 fourth-graders from 160 schools across Israel. The heads of the Education Ministry chose not to publicize the latest results or refer to Israel’s less-than-stellar performance.

The study examines the reading of content and literary texts in printed booklets, with two objectives: reading for the purpose of obtaining information; and reading for pleasure.

The second test also included a component of reading in a computerized environment, in a bid to simulate the internet. Along with studies known as PISA and TIMSS, these are international tests that provide an analysis of a local education system in comparison to other countries.

The average Israeli score in the PIRLS test was 530, compared to 541 in the earlier study. However, the average score conceals a 100-point gap between Jewish and Arab pupils – with average scores of 557 against 461, respectively.

As in other studies, it was found that the higher the socioeconomic background, the higher the achievement. Among Jews, the difference between high and low socioeconomic levels was 74 points, while among Arabs it was 49 points.

Israel has one of the highest such gaps among countries participating in these studies.

Between 2011 and 2016, there was a sharp drop in the achievements of Arab students compared to Hebrew speakers. The number of exceptional students was slightly higher than the international median (13 percent against 10 percent, respectively), but the incidence of pupils with difficulties was also higher (9 percent against 4 percent).

In 2016, there was a slight drop in the number of exceptional pupils and a slight rise in the number of those showing difficulties.

Israel dropped from 18th place (from the 45 countries taking part in 2011) to 29th place (out of 50 in 2016). The average score in Israel was higher than the international average (511) by 19 points.

Slovakia and Kazakhstan both bested Israel, while Russia, Singapore and Hong Kong led the pack. In the ePIRLS test, Israel ranked ninth out of the 14 participating countries.

The results of the last PIRLS test had seemed to show Israel taking a great leap forward, from 31st in 2006 to 18th in the 2011 rankings. Then-Education Minister Gideon Saar even used the data in Likud’s 2013 election campaign. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also noted Israel’s success.

However, it soon became apparent that it was not possible to compare achievements in different cycles of tests in Israel, due to changes in the way texts were translated into Arabic. With the latest results, Israel has more or less returned to where it was a decade ago.

Officials at the Education Ministry believed that Israel’s slide in the rankings, which occurred while Naftali Bennett has been education minister, meant the ministry had not formally publicized the results. A ministry spokesman refused to answer questions from Haaretz on the matter.

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