Israel Drops in International Ranking for Student Achievement in Math and Science

Survey of 39 countries ranks Israel 16th in math and 19th in science, though grades remain unchanged since 2011. Large gap between Hebrew- and Arabic-speakers.

Students taking a matriculation exam at a high school in Hadera.
Alon Ron

On Tuesday, the Education Ministry presented the findings of the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study measuring eighth-graders’ achievements in math and science. In 2011, Israel ranked seventh in math and 13th in science, but it has now fallen to 16th in math and 19th in science, out of 39 countries surveyed.

Also, in both subjects a 70-point gap was found between Hebrew-speakers and Arabic-speakers, with Hebrew-speakers’ grades higher than the worldwide average and Arabic-speakers’ grades lower than the average. Israel was also found to have one of the largest discrepancies in achievement between students from strong and weak socioeconomic backgrounds.

The average grade earned by Israeli students did not change significantly from 2011. The country’s lower ranking is the result of improvement in the marks of students from other countries.

In both math and science, the average achievement by Israeli students was higher than the international average of the countries that were part of the study. The percentage of Israeli students who excelled was also among the highest. However, the percentage of students who struggled with these subjects was also quite high.

The gap between those with the highest and lowest scores was also among the largest among the countries surveyed. In math, Israel ranked third in terms of this gap, preceded only by Turkey and Qatar. In science, Israel placed ninth in this category, preceded by Egypt, Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE, among others.

The gap between the scores of Hebrew-speakers and Arabic-speakers remained unchanged in math, but increased in science, compared to 2011. By way of illustration, the Hebrew-speakers’ math scores alone would put Israel in around sixth place, while the Arabic-speakers’ scores would place it 24th. In science, it would be 11th place just for Hebrew-speakers and 25th place just for Arabic-speakers.

The survey also shows that the stronger the socioeconomic background, the higher the students’ scores. Among Hebrew-speakers this gap stood at about 110 points, and it was 130 points among Arabic-speakers. When the scores of students from a similar socioeconomic background are compared, the discrepancy between Hebrew-speaking and Arabic-speaking students is significantly reduced – in other words, socioeconomic background is a bigger factor than language.

Compared to the 2011 findings, there were no significant changes (an increase of 1-2 percent) in the rate of students who scored very high and those who scored very poorly in either subject. Among Arabic-speakers, the rate of students who scored very high remained relatively unchanged (a 1-percent increase in math and a 2-percent decrease in science), but the rate of those who scored very poorly increased by 3 percent in math and by 7 percent in science.

The TIMSS study is meant to assess the knowledge and skills of eighth-graders from diverse countries and education systems in math and science. It also collates contextual data about the students’ learning conditions through separate questionnaires. Israel has been fully participating in the study since 1999. The most recent test was conducted in Israel in April-May 2015, among a representative sample of 5,512 eighth-grade students from 200 schools (not including ultra-Orthodox and special education schools).

At a press conference following the release of the 2011 results, then-Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke proudly about Israel’s rise in the rankings. At Tuesday’s press conference, neither Education Minister Naftali Bennett nor Education Ministry Director General Michal Cohen was present, and the Education Ministry did not issue a press release. The findings were presented by Dr. Hagit Glickman, head of RAMA, the National Authority for Measurement and Evaluation in Education.  

“The 2015 TIMSS shows no major change compared to 2011, and that since 1999, Israeli students’ achievements have been steadily improving, and that there is a need to strengthen math and science studies in Israel,” an Education Ministry spokesperson told Haaretz. “The recently published figures from the Meitzav [Israeli national] exams show a nice improvement in student achievement in the past year. The TIMSS findings also show that the rate of Israeli students who excel in these subjects is among the highest in the world. There are still some social gaps, but the ministry is investing extensive resources and programs in this, and the recent Meitzav findings also show many successes in this area.”