The Bottom Line / No Math Miracle - Just Blowing Smoke

Last Tuesday the citizens of Israel woke up to a front-page headline in "The country's newspaper," Yedioth Ahronoth, that proudly stated a revolution had occurred last year in high-school matriculation exam scores: The average mathematics score rose from 66 to 86.

I was quite impressed, so I continued reading the wonderful article. It told of the huge investment of resources in the educational system, which finally was reaping the fruits of these investments.

In spite of how the news warmed my heart, for some reason a small doubt entered my mind. How could it be that students improved so much in such a short period of time? For such a dramatic improvement, you need an incredible revolution: long-term investment in children from first grade through 12th, as well as investment in excellent teachers. Of course, none of this had really happened.

So how did such a major miracle really occur?

And then I remembered a method Limor Livnat used to raise matriculation scores while she was education minister.

Her trick was to let students take the tests in math and English twice. Their score would be set by the higher of the two grades - even though traditionally the second test is known to be easier.

So I checked another little detail: what the grades were two years ago. And then the full picture appeared: Two years ago, the average score for the highest level of mathematics (5 points) was 85. Last year it dropped sharply to 66 points, and this year it returned to 86.

In other words, at best there was only a miniscule improvement. Certainly nothing worth a front-page headline.

But that was just the beginning. Two years ago, the average score for the second-highest level (4 points) was 83. Last year these scores dropped to 64, and this year they jumped back to 81. So there was even a slight decrease in scores compared to two years ago. The same happened for level 3, where scores went from 78 two years ago to 69 last year, and back to only 74 this year - well below the grades from two years ago.

Therefore, Limor Livnat shouldn't hurry to celebrate. There certainly is no improvement here. It's only an illusion.

The worst of the anger was directed this week at Bank Discount, which dared to reintroduce an old/new fee: a fee for buying mutual funds.

The bank explained that it was only a tiny little fee, an especially small one of only 0.1 percent. Of course, what is a tenth of a percent between friends?

All through 2005, the banks fought a long battle with the Bachar Committee over the size of "distribution fees" - and the banks won. They won particularly high fees, which are charged to the fund owners only.

But that was not enough for Bank Discount. The bank decided to charge the public another fee of "only" 0.1 percent - in spite of its prior claim that collecting such a fee was impossible.

And how much is 0.1 percent really worth?

The average distribution fee charged by the banks is 0.4 percent, and so a 0.1 percent increase actually means a 25-percent increase in the bank's revenues from mutual funds. This translates into tens of millions of shekels a year paid for by the public, which stands helpless as the banks steal from it with full legal authority.

And now, instead of Joseph Bachar, Moshe Terry, Yaakov Litzman, Ehud Olmert and Abraham Hirchson all hurrying to legislate the prevention of such theft - they simply shake their heads and roll their eyes - and all we can do is watch them, lose our patience - and pay.