Israeli Education Ministry Forced to Translate Matriculation Exam Into Arabic

‘Our students are being tested not only in geography but in Hebrew reading comprehension,’ says court petition

Israel's Supreme Court, in 2018.
Mark Israel Salem

High Court justices reprimanded the Education Ministry on Tuesday for failing to provide Arab students with a full translation of a state exam in geography.

“Draw the necessary conclusions,” justices Daphne Barak-Erez, Anat Baron and Yosef Elron wrote, “so that exams in the Arabic language will not be even the tiniest iota of lesser quality than those in Hebrew, in accordance with the full status of the Arabic language in the State of Israel, for the sake of students for whom Hebrew is not their mother tongue.”

The justices were responding to an appeal filed earlier in the week by a high school geography teacher from Bir al-Maksur, an Arab village in the Galilee, ahead of Wednesday’s exam for 11th graders.

They ordered the ministry to ensure that all parts of the computerized exam for the 5-unit (most difficult level) geography matriculation exam are translated into Arabic.

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Arab teachers found out that names on maps used for the exam and the text accompanying them had not been translated into Arabic. Attorney Tal Hassin of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said dozens of important pieces of information had not been translated, adding that the problem has been cropping up for more than a decade.

The ministry said in response to the complaints that students could take a printed version of the exam over the computerized one. But the ministry had completely computerized the course, and forcing students to switch to a printed format just before the exam would have made it more difficult for them.

The petition said that “The use of Hebrew-language maps in an exam for Arab students prejudices their chances of success. The same would be the case for having them take a printed exam for which they had not been prepared.”

“Our students are being tested not only in geography but in Hebrew reading comprehension,” it added. The ministry had asked the court to reject the petition, saying it had received no complaints about the format in the 15 years that the computerized version of the exam had existed.

In response to the court’s ruling, it said the maps would be fully translated in time for Wednesday’s exam and for future exams as well.