Israeli Pupils Underperform Yet Again on International Exams

Israeli students scored below the OECD average in math, science and reading on the 2015 PISA assessment test, and even underscored some developing nations as well.

Lior Dattel
Lior Dattel
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Pupils with laptops.
Pupils with laptops.Credit: AP
Lior Dattel
Lior Dattel

Israeli students underperformed yet again on international exams, according to the results of the 2015 PISA assessment test, released Tuesday.

Israeli students scored below the OECD average in math, science and reading, and even underscored some developing nations as well.

Furthermore, the gaps between Israeli students themselves were the highest in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which includes 34 socioeconomically advanced countries, and among the highest in the entire world. Some 20% of Israeli students failed all three tests – in math, science and reading. The figure was 45% for Arab students, versus 12% for Jewish students.

Some 540,000 15-year-olds in 72 different countries took the test, which was conducted by the OECD. They are considered a representative sample of the 29 million 15-year-olds in these countries.

In Israel, some 6,598 students from 173 schools took the test. This is considered a representative sample of Israel’s students, with the exception of ultra-Orthodox boys.

Israel’s worst performing students – those in the 5th percentile or below – scored the worst out of all OECD nations, and were among the lowest scores in the world. Even the highest scoring students in Israel did not do well compared to their international counterparts.

The results from last year’s test, during Shay Piron’s term as education minister, are not much different than the results from the previous test in 2012. This indicates the trend of slowly improving test scores that began in 2006 may have halted.

Goal set decade ago not achieved

Israel had set a goal of significantly improving students’ performance over the past 10 years.

The PISA tests are held every three years and are considered the most thorough and important measure of student performance internationally. While the TIMSS test, whose results were published last week, test knowledge of math and science, the PISA tests students’ abilities and skills, and not necessarily book knowledge. The tests seek to show whether the students have the intellectual potential to join a modern workforce.

Bank of Israel Governor Karnit Flug recently stated that the poor performance of Israel’s students, and the high gaps among them, is likely to damage the country’s economic growth. “We’re not giving students tools and skills to enable them to succeed in the workforce, and that will impact future growth and inequality. Israel’s education system is not creating equal opportunity,” she said at the Sderot conference last week.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett stated that the test results “emphasize the need for reducing gaps in Israel’s education and indicate that significant improvement is needed.” He noted that the test scores predate his term, and noted his plan to increase the number of high schoolers taking five points of math in the matriculation test – the highest level of high-school math – and to improve teaching.

“The results of the Meitzav [standardized test] published last month indicate that for the first time, gaps are decreasing, but the road before us is still long,” he said.

Despite the extra 15 billion shekels (about $4 billion) budgeted to education in the three years between the 2012 test and the 2015 test – an increase of 35% in nominal terms – students’ performance has not improved.

Furthermore, the annual education budget has more than doubled in the past 10 years, even though scores have not changed measurably over that period. In 2006 the annual education budget was 25 billion shekels, while it now stands at 53 billion shekels, and is expected to reach 60 billion shekels.

Little improvement in math, science

From 2006 through 2015, Israeli scores in science increased by only 13 points, from 454 to 467 out of a total possible 600 points. The average Israeli math score increased by 28 points, from 442 to 470 points. The score in reading increased more significantly, by 40 points, from 439 to 479 points.

In all subjects, the average Israeli score was lower than the average from developed countries and also from some developing countries.

Israel started participating in international tests at the end of the 1990s, and the low scores shocked the country. Since then, aside from a committee appointed under then-education minister Limor Livnat, whose recommendations were never fully implemented, no education minister has taken fundamental measures to improve the education system.

Formerly, Israel had one of the lowest investments per student in the OECD, but the increased budget brings it closer to the average. However, the state will need to invest more – and use the money correctly – to improve students’ performance.

Education Ministry data show a direct correlation between investment per student and international test scores, but money in and of itself is not enough. The three highest performing countries, for instance, are Singapore, Japan and Estonia, and each invests less per student than the OECD average. Japan actually invests less than Israel.

Some 20% of Israeli students failed in all three tests – math, science and reading, compared to the OECD average of 13%. The OECD states that a student who fails one or more test is likely to have difficulty participating in a modern workforce.

Of the OECD nations, only Slovakia, Greece, Chile, Turkey and Mexico had a higher percentage of students failing all three tests.

Some 3% of Israeli students received excellent test scores, compared to an OECD average of 4%.

Israel had one of the highest math failure rates in the OECD – 32% versus the OECD average of 23%. Some 31% of Israeli students failed the science test, versus the 21% average, and 27% failed the reading test, versus 20% in the OECD as a whole.

Some good news for Jews, none for Arabs

The Education Ministry noted that in 2006, some 26% of Israeli students had failed all three tests. The decrease in the number of students who failed all tests was mostly due to improvements among Jewish students; there was no improvement in the performance of Arab students.

Of the Arab students, 64% failed the math test and 56% failed the reading and science tests. Arab students receive on average considerably less money per student than Jewish students.

Furthermore, Israel’s earnings gaps are among the highest in the developed world, and based on the test scores, this may even be worsening. While some 47% of students from a low socioeconomic background failed all three tests and 1% showed excellent results, only 18% of those from a high socioeconomic background failed all three exams, while 12% had outstanding achievements.

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