Israel's Standardized Testing Gives the Wrong Results

When a gifted ultra-Orthodox child was tested by secular experts, they failed to see that when he said an onion was a fruit he was actually right.

Thirty years ago, a group of secular experts had a 5-year-old ultra-Orthodox boy take an IQ text. One of the questions was, “What does a tailor do?” “A tailor?” the boy replied. “He fixes shoes!” The examiners marked an error. “Is an onion a fruit or a vegetable?” they asked. “A fruit,” he answered. Another mistake.

If the examiners had bothered to do more fact-checking, they would have discovered that the shoemaker in the neighborhood was named Mr. Hayat ‏(the Hebrew word for tailor‏) and that the boy was referring to the prayer invoking “the Creator of the fruits of the earth” rather than illustrated textbooks for children. So his original responses were correct and the boy was actually a gifted child.

Children (Illustrative), Moti Milrod
Moti Milrod

In the meantime, the state has developed a system for testing and grading children in the ultra-Orthodox community; it also understands that one’s mother tongue, cultural background and other factors require changes to the tests. Yet what is applicable to young children suddenly loses its significance when considering candidates for higher education.

Two weeks ago, students sat down to take the February standardized college entry exam ‏(“the psychometry,” as it’s known in Hebrew‏). Usually, February is the month all the “regular” students − those whose mother tongue is Hebrew and who do not have learning disabilities or hearing or vision problems − take the test. This time, however, young people who grew up speaking Russian or Arabic also took the test. Many months will pass until they hear their scores, but we can assume that this year the grades will be lower than last year.

According to official education statistics, the scores for February exams ‏(for the “regular” students‏) are significantly higher than for all the other dates.

Students who took the test in February scored an average of 577, while the other scores ranged from 519 to 535.

Students with learning disabilities will be tested on another date. But even without considering their test scores separately, officials at Student − a group founded by Tel Aviv University’s student union that runs a preparation course for those taking standardized tests − believe that the benefits and perks the “others” get are not enough.

Skeptics who believe that these claims are exaggerated should look at a report commissioned last year by Dirasat − The Arab Center for Law and Policy. In a summary in Hebrew entitled “Psychometric Exam − A Tool for Placement or Exclusion?” the NGO offers conclusions reached by Mohanad Mustafa, a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Haifa. The most significant piece of data in the report highlights the gap between the average test scores of those who took the exam in Hebrew and those who took it in Arabic. The latter scored, on average, more than 100 points less than the former.

This gap has remained consistent despite the adjustments made to tailor the test to students. The exam represents one of the main stumbling blocks for Arab high school students seeking to pursue higher education. Given the renewed dialogue among people in high tech, industry and even the government regarding the importance of integrating Arab college graduates into the workforce, it is tremendously important to identify and remove these stumbling blocks. Anyone who wishes to see greater Arab participation in the workforce must do away with these obstacles.

If you read between the lines of the report, which details the failed policy of excluding Arabs, you can also notice a screening mechanism used to weed out other swaths of the population: those who suffer from a physical or functional disability, those without a high school diploma from a “reputable” institution, and most importantly, those who lack the finances to hire a private tutor to prepare for a standardized test. This is an apparatus that perpetuates the wide gaps in the education system. Thus, it is illegitimate.

Dirasat researchers, like members of Student, propose an interim solution.

But the facts and figures starkly show the bankruptcy in the placement-exam system ‏(both college entrance and high school matriculation tests‏) that Israel, unlike most Western countries, continues to cling to, even though it has been proved that these exams do not accurately predict college success.

It’s obvious that the gifted ultra-Orthodox child who said that an onion was a fruit would have failed the standardized test. Those who wish to integrate people like the boy and others into the workforce and higher education need to adopt the placement system that has become standard worldwide: judging students during their studies. The private companies that offer testing tutorials will get angry. No big deal.