Profs.: History Bagrut 'Degrades, Abuses' the Subject

"Present three factors that contributed to the growth of the nationalist movements in the 19th century." "Present the characteristics of Hellenistic culture."

These questions and others on the history matriculation exam three weeks ago led three history professors to write an open letter criticizing the fact that the exam's questions have not changed in the past 20 or 30 years.

The questions "should express what society expects - knowledge, skills, thinking and values. But disappointingly, [the questions test] neither skill nor thought, values nor appraisals. The exam limits itself to a few questions whose answers require only memorization," wrote Professor Eyal Naveh of Tel Aviv University, Dr. Gadi Rauner of Tel Aviv University and the Open University, and Aryeh Kizel of the University of Haifa and Oranim Academic College.

Students must pass at least two units of history in order to receive a matriculation certificate. In recent years, the average grade on the exam has been around 75. Very few students choose to take the five-unit exam; in 2007 only about 1,180 students did.

More than 80 percent of the questions on the history exam three weeks ago required students to present, describe, note or explain.

One high-school history teacher from central Israel said these types of questions "make study shallow, require students to 'regurgitate' material they learned by heart. They do not reflect an understanding of history or real knowledge."

In their letter, the historians advised their colleagues to review the last exam, and then wrote: "We know what you will say - that you are not responsible for history education, that you deal with research and interpretation of historical truth. Only a small portion of graduates will reach you, at the universities or the colleges ... only then will you discover how much they don't know. Some are lacking any understanding of history, some don't know how to write or even read."

The three scholars wrote that history is taught "not only to 'teach the material' but to develop historical thinking and research skills, and to draw personal moral implications."

The three said the educational system was "damaging the historical muse," and "abuses and degrades" the subject.

Rauner said the test questions have not been changed for the past 20 or 30 years.

"The tests prostitute historical studies. Even when the tests involve historical sources that may raise questions of understanding and analysis, they actually only test the students' reading comprehension."

Rauner also said it would be relatively easy to make the exam questions more interesting and relevant. For example, instead of asking students to list the actions of the Committee for Crisis Relief of the pre-state NILI organization during World War I, "the student could be asked to compare two organizations and even state which one they support."

The Education Ministry responded: "The matriculation exam in history included many questions requiring understanding and examining knowledge. The ministry regrets the scholars' letter, which presents the exams in a distorted light, and presents some questions as if they were meaningless."