Poor Grades? Maybe Kids Just Don't Get the Question

Analysis of national history test results indicates poor reading skills; teachers criticize the test itself.

Israeli students are finishing high school without mastering reading comprehension, according to an internal Education Ministry document analyzing why students scored an average of 65 on last year's national matriculation exam in history.

"[Teachers] must practice with the students to define to themselves in each question what is required, what exactly they are asking," said Michael Yaron, the ministry supervisor responsible for history studies and the document's author.

However, history teachers and academics are criticizing the test itself, which is one of the required matriculation exams. They say it forces students to spit back information and focuses too much on making sure students do not answer too fully.

Changes are in the works that would require students to do more, but no major revisions are expected immediately.

"At this rate, it will be many years before the students will not have to spit back the material," said one official familiar with the exam.

Many of the 40,000 Jewish high school students who took the exam are not familiar with basic aspects of Israeli and world history, according to Yaron.

"Many students weren't familiar with/didn't know/didn't understand the position of [David] Ben-Gurion in connection with the desirable attitude toward the Arabs in the Land of Israel, and many had difficulty coping with the task that asked for an explanation of how his position differed from that of [Ze'ev] Jabotinsky," Yaron wrote in his analysis of the history exam, which was sent to history teachers across the country.

But Yaron's analysis indicates that one of the students' major obstacles is not their understanding of history but rather their inability to parse exactly what the ministry expects them to provide for each "task word."

Yaron suggested that the students learn how to identify what the question asks them to do and rewrite each task in their own words.

"It must be ascertained that the students recognize the task words and know what is required in each of the tasks," Yaron wrote. For instance, when students are asked "to note" something, he wrote, they are supposed to write "in outline form only, without going into detail." When they are asked "to describe" or "to portray," they must describe the phenomenon or event - but "without explaining the reasons for their coming into being or their effects/influences."

"One must demand that the students answer only what they are asked in the question, in accordance with the task words," Yaron wrote. "It is recommended that gradually, from the third exam in the school year, the grade will be lowered for writing add-ons that are not connected to the question."

A long-time high school teacher in the center of the country complained about the ministry's "almost blind" adherence to the instructions.

"This nitpicking embodies everything that's bad about the history matriculation exam," the teacher said. "The chase after seemingly measurable answers makes studying superficial. The importance that the Education Ministry ascribes to almost blind obedience to the instruction words comes at the expense of the ability to go into depth. Memorization can't come before cultivating an understanding of history."

A university official familiar with high-school history instruction also said students were just expected to spit back the answers.

"In the absence of time and the intention to turn the information transmitted in the classroom or textbook into knowledge - the kind that is significant to the student - the expectation is that students 'spill out' all the material in the test in a one-time occurrence."