Israel's High School Matriculation Exam Is Big Business, but Do Students Benefit?

Education experts believe that highly expensive standardized exams like the bagrut are increasingly irrelevant as a measure of readiness to go on to higher education or join the labor force

Students in an Israeli school
Matt Cardy / Getty Images

For Israeli adolescents, the bagrut (high school matriculation) exam is about months of study and pressure to perform. But it’s also big business, amounting to hundreds of millions of shekels annually in contracts to private business and nonprofit organizations.

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Figures obtained by TheMarker estimate that the direct cost to the Education Ministry of administering the exam runs to 460 million shekels ($125 million) a year and the cost has been growing as persistent leaks have forced officials to step up security, and efforts to rein in the size and scale of the process have failed.

Yet for all that time and money, growing numbers of education experts believe that standardized exams like the bagrut are increasingly irrelevant as a measure of readiness to go on to higher education or join the labor force.

“It’s a measurement tool, the bagrut that everyone’s addicted to. Elsewhere in the world they’ve moved on to newer types of assessment, such as self-study and study, but in Israel it’s hard to imagine a situation in which there is suddenly no bagrut,” said Prof. Ami Volansky of the Tel Aviv University School of Education.

Almost as soon as the bagrut was first administered in the 1930s it had its critics. Starting in the 1970s, various education minsters and government committees have recommended pairing it back, to no avail. Shai Piron sought to reduce the scale of the exam when he was education minister in 2014.

Not only did he also fail, but the cost has been growing rapidly. When he was spearheading the reform drive, Piron put the cost of administering the exam to 85,100 students in 2011 at 340 million shekels ($92.4 million). Since then, the number of students taking the exam has risen nearly 16% but the budget has jumped 35%, according to the Marker’s figures.

The figure doesn’t include the cost to students and parent hiring private tutors or cramming exams. Nor does it include the cost of teachers collecting overtime to prepare students or helping others. Nor does it take into account the months devoted every year by Education Ministry officials and high school principals to preparing and administering the exam.

“We’ve created a situation in which school principals, who are supposed to be concerned with developing abilities and imparting knowledge to students, are increasingly busy with exams, so much so that they do not have time left for social activities,” said Volansky.

Israel’s focus on matriculation exams is unusual. A 2007 study by the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem found almost no other country has such an elaborate system. Israel requires student to take at least eight tests in seven required and one optional subject. In the United States, there is no nationwide exam at all while in Sweden students are tested on three subjects, and in Belgium just on composition.

Nearly all of the exam process has been privatized, often to companies or non-profits that were awarded contracts without competitive bidding.

The exams themselves are prepared by two non-profit organizations – the Centre of Educational Logistics and the Szold Institute – at a cost of nearly 40 million shekels a year.

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Most of the printing work for the tests is done by the Government Printing Office at a cost of 32 million shekels. Much of it is wasted on printing too many exams because the Education Ministry doesn’t know how many students will take the exam, and errs on the side of caution by printing too many.

The exams are packaged and delivered under the tightest of security by private security and delivery companies at a cost of 24 million shekels a year. When they reach the schools, they are stored in smart safes that were installed by a private company. Supposedly they are tamper-proof, but this year, again, at least one exam (English language) surfaced on Facebook.

The exams themselves are administered by people working for private personnel companies at a cost of 108 million shekels and those supervisors are, in turn, supervised by another private contractor.

The exams themselves are graded at a central location in Lod by another company, which hires 7,000 moonlighting teachers and others to do the work. That costs 233 million shekels annually, most of it to pay the graders.

While the Education Ministry stressed the importance of ensuring that the exams aren’t leaked, it also said it was working to reduce printing costs and relying more on digital means to administer and grade the exams. But for Volansky the cost of the bagruut isn’t the central issue.

“The main problem is the exam culture,” he said. “Students learn only what’s in the exam and develop techniques of memorization to pass a test at a reasonable level. But there’s no connection between the grades and the depth of their knowledge or ability. We expect the teachers to be the ones who will prepare the students for the exam instead of the ones who will teach them to live.”