Israel's Math, Science Rankings Modestly Improve, but Arab Students Left Behind

In an index that examines the gaps between top-performing and low-performing students in math, Israel is ranked fifth, exceeded only by Turkey and the UAE

Shira Kadari-Ovadia
Shira Kadari-Ovadia
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An Arabic lesson in a Bedouin school in Sallama, February 27, 2020
An Arabic lesson in a Bedouin school in Sallama, February 27, 2020Credit: Rami Shllush
Shira Kadari-Ovadia
Shira Kadari-Ovadia

The gaps between the achievements of Arab and Jewish children in mathematics and sciences have decreased somewhat in recent years, but remain very large, show the recently published results of the 2019 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.

The study examined mathematics and science achievements of eighth-grade students in 39 countries. Israeli children were ranked in ninth place for math and 16th place for sciences, seemingly an improvement compared to 2015, when Israel was in 16th place for math and 19th for sciences. But the change in ranking is not indicative of the students’ achievements since some countries that excelled last time decided not to participate this time around, accompanied by a decline in the scores of students from other countries.

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Israel’s math scores have remained stable in the past decade, with an average increase of 8 points (the maximum is 800) from the last study in 2015 – a negligible change. Nor was there any clear improvement in sciences.

In an index that examines the gaps between top-performing and low-performing students in math, Israel is ranked fifth, exceeded only by Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (the United States and Taiwan ranked similar to Israel).

There remain great disparities between Arab and Jewish students. In math, a 60-point gap exists between the average grades of Jews and Arabs; in sciences, the gap is 42 points. While the scores of Hebrew-speaking students are higher than the international average and lower only than those of outstanding East Asian countries, Arab students scored lower than the international average and outperformed only students in the weakest participating countries: Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.

The gaps between Jewish and Arab students are also evident when we examine the scores of each population: Only 6 percent of Arabic-speaking students excelled in the study, compared to 19 percent of Hebrew speakers. Top-performing Jews also received a higher average score than top-performing Arabs. Half the Arab students scored poorly or very poorly in math, while among Hebrew speakers, only a quarter (26 percent) received low or very low grades.

There is a gap of 11 points in math and 20 points in sciences between students in state schools and those in state religious schools, mainly because the percentage of top-performing students is higher in the state schools than in the state religious ones, while the percentage of struggling students is relatively low in the state schools. The gap was greater in tests conducted over the past decade – 30 to 40 points – but it decreased in the most recent study when the achievements of students in state religious schools improved while they remained the same in state schools.

The TIMSS study has been conducted every four years for eighth graders from dozens of countries since 1995. This year it included 230,000 students from 39 countries. Israel has participated since 1999. The study is conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.

The Israeli study was conducted by the Education Ministry’s National Authority for Measurement and Evaluation, and included 3,731 students from 157 schools. The participating schools are chosen as a representative sampling of the Israeli population – by socioeconomic distribution, mother tongue and type of school (state or state religious). The sampling doesn’t include ultra-Orthodox and special education students, which together comprise about 20 percent of the student population.

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