Study Finds Ethiopian Israeli High Schoolers Falling Behind

The researchers focused on the core subjects - language, math and English and the sciences - physics, chemistry and biology

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Israeli students taking a math test.
Israeli students taking a math test.Credit: Ilan Assayag
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Only 134 students of Ethiopian origin studied mathematics at the highest, 5-point level. This represents about 4.8 percent of all Ethiopian Israeli 12th graders in high schools, while among Jewish high school students in general, 21 percent take the 5-point matriculation exam. These figures come from a new study of the gaps in educational achievement between Ethiopian Israelis and their peers.

The study – conducted by Dr. Svetlana Chachashvili-Bolotin, Dr. Ravit Talmi-Cohen and Lior Yohanani of the Institute for Immigration and Social Integration at the Ruppin Academic Center – also found that despite an improvement in eligibility for matriculation certificates in recent years, there are still big differences between this group and the others, especially in the more prestigious subjects such as 5-point math, sciences and English.

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Chachashvili-Bolotin says the figures present “a gloomy situation assessment,” especially since most of the Ethiopian Israeli students were born in Israel or immigrated at a young age. The data also pose the question whether the investment in the students – via a ramified system of programs and projects run by government ministries and third-sector organizations – was done correctly.

The researchers focused on the core subjects (language, math and English) and the sciences (physics, chemistry and biology). During the 2018-2019 academic year there were 2,832 Ethiopian Israeli students, about 62 percent born in Israel. Because the average age of immigration of Ethiopian-born students is 8.5, most of the 12 graders – first- or second-generation Israelis – studied in Israeli schools for most of their lives.

Between 2013 and 2019 there was an increase in eligibility for a matriculation certificate among Ethiopian Israelis as well as the other students in the Hebrew education system, but there is still a significant gap; in 2019 it was 16 percent (82 percent vs. 66 percent). This does not include those who dropped out before 12th grade.

In a comparison between those born in Ethiopia (first generation) and those born in Israel to Ethiopian parents (second generation), among the boys the former group did better than the latter, as opposed to the common assumption that members of the second generation have higher achievements than first-generation students – which was, however, true for the girls.

The gap between matriculation grades in Hebrew language between Ethiopian Israelis and others is 7 points (in both generations). The researchers note that the differences in command of the language affect not only text-based subjects like language, history and literature, but other subjects as well.

It was found that 25 percent of Ethiopian Israeli students didn’t study math at all or take any exam in the subject – twice as many as among Jewish students (excluding the ultra-Orthodox). The percentage of those tested at the lowest 3-point level was 60 percent vs. 45 percent.

In other words, the emphasis by the Education Ministry on expanded math studies during the tenure of Minister Naftali Bennett didn’t affect all the pupils similarly. In addition, about 55 percent of Ethiopian Israeli students studied English at a 3- or 4-point level – the same as the percentage of non-Ethiopians who studied at the 5-point level.

The tracks combining math with at least one of the sciences, at a 5-point level, are considered the most prestigious, and over the years the gap between the two groups in the proportion of those studying the combined track is increasing. In 2013 it was 8 percent, in 2019 it increased to 14.5 percent – with only 111 Ethiopian Israelis studying in that track.

There was also a big gap in those studying expanded physics – about 3.5 percent of Ethiopian Israelis (100 students in all), compared to 13.6 percent of all the students.

The researchers recommend investing in programs for excellence, in addition to help for low achievers. Chachashvili-Bolotin added that as opposed to members of other low-achieving groups, Ethiopian Israelis experience constant difficulties not only because of their aliyah to Israel but also because of “racist reactions to their skin color.”

She added that despite a prevailing belief that it’s possible to get ahead even without a matriculation certificate, “only few members of the weak groups succeed financially and in terms of employment without a matriculation certificate, and certainly without a high-quality certificate. Without it, most of them will work in blue-collar professions, with less job prestige and a low earning potential.”

Attorney Shlomit Bukaya, director of the Association of Ethiopian Jews, called the statistics “a failing grade for the school system. We’re no longer talking about new immigrants, so that language or culture gaps can no longer be considered obstacles. More than anything, the figures attest to an incorrect or insufficient investment in our students.”

Educator Dr. Shula Mola told Haaretz about her children’s encounter with the situation described in the study. “One of my son’s teachers told the class that the most successful people in the world didn’t finish school, and that many in Israel study only 3-point math,” said Mola. “We were really angry, because we knew it wasn’t right for our son – not only can he succeed at a 5-point course of study, but the way for him to increase his chances in a racist society like ours is to excel in parameters built by the whites. Unfortunately, there’s no room for compromise and making choices that distance you from the chance of overcoming your origin.”

She said that her daughter wanted to study English at an advanced level, and one teacher told her that “she’s not from the right ethnic group.” Mola added that such personal stories make it possible “to glimpse the dynamic that creates a situation in which only 111 students studied 5-point math.”

She says it’s mainly because of “teachers’ low expectations, which bring our brown children down to the bottom of learning achievements. We need teachers with social awareness, but until then the parents have to be aware of the ways in which the schools are bringing our children down and condemning them to the lowest tracks.”

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