Tel Aviv University Opts for Grades Over Skewed Entry Exams That Miss the Mark

Psychometric exams, which check knowledge rather than academic suitability, have been shown to favor more affluent Israelis.

High school girls studying for the psychometric exam in Jerusalem in 2010.
Tomer Appelbaum

Tel Aviv University announced this week a change in standards for accepting applicants. Rather than mixing matriculation test score averages with the psychometric exam score, as is the norm, the university will from now on also accept students based on their true academic scores, the grades they received on courses they studied. Anyone who averages an 85 or higher on three academic courses and has a high school diploma will be considered for acceptance without having to take the psychometric exam.

The university took the unprecedented step to get with the times. The web is flooded with online academic courses. An academic institution that does not join the new wave is liable to find itself missing a significant proportion of its target audience. Tel Aviv University has thus decided to join rather than fight against the tide in order to increase demand for its services. Along the way, it is also advancing a social revolution because it enables equal opportunity for people who struggle with the psychometric exam for reasons unconnected to their abilities.

It is no secret that scores for psychometric exams, which have served as a filter for academic studies, suffers from severe variances among social, cultural and socioeconomic groups. The average score of Hebrew speakers (576) is 20% higher than that of Arab speakers (478). The average score for residents of central Israel (587) is 13% higher than for those from the periphery (517). Worse of all, the average of wealthy students (605) is 25% better than that of poor students (486).

Assuming the wealthy don’t have a monopoly on intelligence, the psychometric exam becomes one of the biggest blockades to equal opportunity in Israeli society. The fact that you can improve your psychometric score through prep courses, which cost thousands of shekels and are thus only an option for wealthy people, suggests that the psychometric exam runs roughshod over the basic right to equal opportunity.

Another way to show suitability

Despite the pronounced findings that prep courses skew variances in psychometric exam averages, consequently causing social variances in who gets accepted, Israeli academia has insisted for many years that the psychometric exam is an important predictor of academic success. To be precise, they argue that a combination of matriculation exam results and psychometric score constitute a relatively exact filter for chances of academic success. Thus, despite all the sorrow and pain, academia still refuses to yield on the exam.

This claim is statistically correct. The Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel published research this week demonstrating again the significant correlation between matriculation and psychometric scores and the odds of obtaining an academic degree. Thus, only 14% of secular men with matriculation and psychometric certificates failed to finish their degrees. The rate jumps to 33% for those who were accepted without one or the other, and soars to 63% for students who had neither.

Most of these dropouts had attended the Open University, whose dropout rates among secular men approach 75%. Several factors explain the high dropout rate. Most Open University students are trying to combine work and studies, and they don’t always manage the burden. It is also a school that requires mainly independent study, a style suited to only a few students. Still, the fact that the Open University is the most egalitarian university in Israel by providing equal opportunity to all regardless of their background no doubt contributes to the enormous dropout rates. Many Open University students simply lack requisite academic capabilities, which is also the reason they try their luck there and not at the established institutions, which impose more stringent acceptance criteria.

In other words, the inequality of the psychometric exam is not only a matter of arbitrariness; there is also a measure of justification for the demand to take this exam.

Still, there is no doubt that giving the opportunity to enter academia without the exam by taking online courses is a terrific solution, thus providing equal opportunity to all. Moreover, academia gains an excellent predictive tool. Taking online courses to a great degree is a real-life simulation. Anyone who can score 85 or better on an academic exam has proven he has the requisite capability to complete a degree. In such a case, what is so important about a psychometric exam (and allow us to add a matriculation certificate for that matter) if the student has demonstrated academic suitability?

More important qualities

One of the interesting findings in the Taub Center research, conducted by Eitan Regev, is the huge gender gap in academic success. More secular women complete an academic degree by a margin of 43%-28% than secular men. Fewer secular women drop out (18% compared to 24% for secular men), too. Yet secular men average 11% better than their secular female counterparts on the psychometric exam.

It would be incorrect to argue that women do better because they major in less challenging subjects. When Regev controlled for majors, he found that secular men are still 7% more likely to drop out than secular women. He concluded that the reason explaining this gap is that more women apply to academia than men, including women with lower scores who bring down the average. He also explains the deviation in the psychometric exam, which checks knowledge but probably misses additional qualities needed to succeed academically.

“Given the fact that a higher rate of women engage in academic studies, it would have been possible to see dropout rates among them higher than among men, but the opposite is true,” writes Regev. “These statistics point to the probable existence of additional factors that lead to higher academic graduation rates among women.”

He says, for example, that women are endowed with greater perseverance, determination and concentration abilities, which lead to higher academic success rates. “Another possibility is that women are endowed with higher levels of other abilities that are not reflected in psychometric grades but are expressed in the ability to successfully finish a degree,” he writes. Regev notes that this hypothesis is in line with a higher rate of women having matriculation certificates.

If so, not only is the psychometric exam suspect as an obstacle to equal opportunity in Israeli society. It turns out that it is also a less effective blockade than we had thought. It misses important qualities that ensure academic success – that is to say it does not fully do its job as a measure to forecast academic success. In our case, it is a misleading deviation for half the population – women – and precisely the population that is more academically successful. It is another reason to open academia to other acceptance methods that are not based solely on the psychometric exam.