Major Drop for Israeli Students on International Test, Exposing Growing Gaps Within Society

Students' performance on latest PISA exam fell in all three subjects tested – reading, math and science – with Jewish, wealthier students scoring much higher than Arab, poorer ones

Students at a school in Taibeh, Israel, December 3, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

Israeli students scored significantly worse on the latest PISA exam than they did three years earlier, with the percentage of failing students reaching a 10-year high and larger gaps between stronger and weaker students than any other participating country.

The gaps between Jewish and Arab students were particularly glaring, with the Arab failure rate more than double the Jewish one.

For the first time, Israelis’ scores fell in all three subjects – reading, math and science – after having climbed slowly but steadily over the previous 15 years. This happened even though the Education Ministry’s budget had risen by 10 billion shekels ($2.9 billion) since the last exam, in 2015, and speaks to the discredit of Naftali Bennett, who was education minister throughout the period in question.

Most of the drop was attributed to declining scores among Arab students, said Education Ministry sources. The average scores for Jewish students were mostly unchanged.

Israeli PISA scores vs. those of other countries

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish students didn’t participate in the exam. If they had, Israel’s scores would have been even worse.

And even outstanding Israeli students scored worse than their peers in other developed countries, according to the results released on Tuesday, which are for the 2018 exam.

The Program for International Student Assessment, which is administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, tests students’ problem-solving skills rather than their knowledge – for instance, their ability to extract information from a written text or to compare the lengths of two alternate routes. It is therefore considered an indicator of how well students will succeed in higher education, the job market and even daily life, as well as an accurate way of comparing the performance of different countries’ education systems.

The scores for Jewish students were close to those in the previous test, in 2015, while Arab students’ scores dropped significantly in all three subjects.

As a result, gaps in Israel between the strongest students and the weakest students grew, and are now the highest out of all the 79 countries that participate in the test.

Education Ministry sources said they were surprised by the decline in Arab students’ scores, given efforts over the past several years to close the gap versus Jewish students. The Education Ministry department responsible for testing contacted the OECD and asked it to review the reliability of the results, and also conducted its own internal review, but found no errors.

The test in Israel was conducted among a representative sample of 6,623 15-year-old students at 174 high schools.

Scores range from 200 to 800.

Average PISA science scores in Israel and the OECD

Among Arab pupils, average reading scores declined 29 points from 2015 to a score of 362; science scores declined 26 points, to 375; and math scores declined 12 points, to 379.

A 30-point decline is considered to represent the equivalent of one year of schooling.

In comparison, Jewish students scored significantly higher, more or less on par with the OECD average. Jewish students had an average score of 506 points in reading, above the OECD average of 487 points; they scored 490 in math, compared to an OECD average of 489; and 491 in science, compared to an OECD average of 489.

On the whole, Israel scored below the OECD average. Nationwide scores were 470 for reading, 463 for math and 462 for science.

The OECD noted that overall, average scores were a bit lower in 2018 than in 2015. But in many ways, Israel’s performance was particularly dismal.

Altogether, 31 percent of Israelis failed the reading exam, up from 27 percent in 2015, whereas the average failure rate among all 79 participating countries was just nine percent. Thirty-four percent of Israelis failed the math exam (up from 32 percent in 2015), compared to an average failure rate of 24 percent. And 33 percent failed science (up from 31 percent), contributing to Israel’s lowest ranking ever in that subject.

Average PISA reading scores in Israel and the OECD

Moreover, 22 percent of Israeli students failed all three exams, the highest rate in a decade. That compares to an average failure rate of just 13 percent.

Overall, Israel was ranked 37 in reading (similar to its 2015 ranking, but with a lower average score); 42nd in science, its lowest ranking ever; and 41 in math, down from 38 in 2015.

The Education Ministry attributed the poor results primarily to Arab students. Almost no Arab students were deemed outstanding, and 53 percent failed all three exams. The failure rate for individual exams was even higher, with 69 percent of Arab students failing reading, 67 percent failing math and 66 percent failing science.

The ministry set up a task force to examine curricula in Arab schools and their use of classroom hours. But it failed to mention its own responsibility, in that Arab schools have suffered for years from budgetary discrimination.

Overall, Israel had larger gaps between the strongest and weakest students than any other country. In reading, the gap was 407 points, compared to an average gap of 327; in math it was 356, compared to an average of 297; and in science it was 361, compared to an average of 306.

The weakest five percent of Israeli students also had some of the lowest scores of any participating country. In reading, for instance, the weakest Israelis scored 380 points on average, whereas the average for the weakest students from all participating countries was 401.

Average PISA math scores in Israel and the OECD

Moreover, just eight percent of Israelis from weak socioeconomic backgrounds had outstanding scores in reading. Only two countries – Luxembourg and Hungary – had lower rates.

The strongest five percent of Israelis also scored below the average, though the gap was smaller. In reading, for instance, the best Israelis scored an average of 528; the average for all participating countries was 532. But some countries performed much better: Outstanding Chinese students, for instance, had an average reading score of 619.

Thus if PISA scores indeed reflect the abilities of future graduates, the Israeli economy is likely to have trouble competing globally. Indeed, the Bank of Israel has warned repeatedly that Israel’s poor performance on successive PISA exams, coupled with the large gaps between stronger and weaker students, undermine the country’s economy and hurt its growth.

The best-performing country was China, but only students from big cities participated there. It was followed by Singapore, Macao and Hong Kong, with other high performers including Estonia, Canada, Finland and Ireland. The OECD highlighted Estonia as particularly noteworthy, because its education budget is 30 percent below the OECD average.