Israel's Education Minister Has a Grade, and It's Hollow

I have no intention of responding to the poll ranking the minister, just as I want him to stop ranking teachers and students.

The PISA results for 2012 are due in December. Every three years the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment tests administers the tests to 15-year-olds in dozens of countries around the world, in order to evaluate their math, language and science skills.

That age was chosen because in most countries it is when students are close to completing their compulsory education requirements. Israel's showing in the previous PISA round, in 2009, was miserable: Achievement was very low, with extremely wide gaps, putting it near the bottom of the country rankings.

In 2009 Gideon Sa'ar became education minister, so that year's PISA results could be seen as the baseline for his term. By this logic the 2012 tests could be seen to measure his contribution to Israeli education. in Israel.

Saar himself said, at the Histadrut labor federation education conference in July, "During this term I began rescuing the education system from a massive, decades-long crisis," adding, "I believe that Israel can be among the top Western countries in education."

To that end Sa'ar, to a greater extent than his predecessors, advanced the "effective school" approach. Imported from the United States in the 1990s, this approach has three main tenets: reducing the breadth of the curriculum in favor of the fundamentals - language and math; creating study units with clearly defined goals of the information and skills the students are expected to acquire from each one ("standards," in Education Ministry parlance ); and frequent testing in order to monitor and control student progress.

By way of explaining his philosophy Sa'ar has said that is impossible to improve without measurement. But at least when it comes to education there is no proof of this claim. Students succeed in their classes, whether more or less, irrespective of quantitative final exams (as opposed to other means of evaluation ).

Indeed, there has been no improvement over the past three years in grades on the standardized tests administered every year in Israel, such as the Meitzav achievement tests and the bagrut matriculation examinations. On the other hand, we know that tests exacerbate educational gaps between students: The strongest students receive positive reinforcement from high scores, while for the weakest students low scores damage their self-esteem and motivation to learn.

We also know that the policy of standards and measurement increases distrust among the actors within the education system. Strict supervision harms not only the students but also the teachers and principals. In the United States there have been claims that frequent testing is harmful to students' health. This claim is supported by data showing increased emotional distress in teens, which has been linked to violence, eating disorders and suicide.

Moreover, test scores are easily manipulated. For example, were we to remove students from East Jerusalem or from the ultra-Orthodox community from the test sample the average scores would improve significantly. Perhaps this was why a recent Education Ministry directive was issued calling for "limiting the use of tests." The new instructions considerably limit the number of tests permitted every year and emphasize the negative claims mentioned above. They were issued due to a concern that schools were devoting more class time to subjects that can be measured at the expense of ones that cannot for the sole purpose of "succeeding" in the quantitative tests.

This is a substantive change that marks a considerable retreat from the ministry's pro-testing policy. Perhaps ministry officials have had advance notice of the PISA results? Or maybe it's connected to a recent email Sa'ar sent out, with a link to a public opinion poll: "If you support the activities of the education minister during this term of office, we would be glad if you would vote for him and rank him." Like a competitor in a reality show.

I have no intention of responding to the poll ranking the minister, just as I want him to stop ranking teachers and students. For my part I will bet that the results in December will not reflect improvement to the Israeli education system. But whatever they are, the opposition to the effective-school movement, to standards and tests, is a matter of principle. It is an approach that has no educational value.

The author is a managing partner of the Didactic Team curriculum development company.