Measuring success: international exams and Israel’s education system
Author: Taub Center Staff Bulletin Articles

Israel does not score well on international exams when compared with other developed countries, though its performance is improving. Principal Education Researcher Nachum Blass says that high scores on international exams should not be expected in Israel given the comparatively low level of spending on Israel’s education system. Furthermore, he finds that receiving high scores on international exams does not necessarily measure knowledge or predict a better economic future for the country. This all raises the question: do Israelis put too much weight on international exam scores?

Since 1999, and even earlier, Israel has ranked among the lowest-performing developed countries on certain international exams, including TIMSS, PISA and PIRLS – exams that test a wide range of age-groups on a number of subjects over many years. Israel’s performance is low both in terms of average scores for all pupils and in terms of the gap between the strongest and weakest pupils. In other words, compared with other countries, a smaller percentage of Israeli pupils receive outstanding scores, and a larger percentage of Israeli pupils receive weak scores on these international exams.

Many are under the impression that there has been a deterioration in Israeli pupil performance on international exams since the beginning of the millennium, based on Israel’s international ranking. However, this conclusion ignores the fact that the countries listed and the number of countries ranked changes from test to test, affecting Israel’s relative status. Out of the 26 countries that have participated in all PISA exams, Israel ranks ninth in improvement in the rankings and fourth in improved pupil scores between 2000 and 2012, whereas other countries, including the U.S., have declined in these rankings. The picture regarding PIRLS is the same: Israel ranks fifth of 22 countries in terms of score improvement, and fourth for improved rank between 2001 and 2011. In a recent policy paper on international exams, Taub Center Principal Researcher Nachum Blass argues that, when evaluated alongside their peers in other countries, Israeli pupils’ performance on international exams has not worsened, but in fact has improved.

Blass claims that the expectation of better outcomes in international exams is, at its core, based on national pride and being “the people of the book.” However, in practice, examining variables that impact pupil achievement on such exams helps to explain Israel’s relatively poor, though improving, performance. These variables include class size, teacher salaries, and the country’s education budget (relative to GDP).

Classes in Israel are larger than the OECD average. As shown in the table below, the number of pupils in Israel’s primary school classes is significantly higher than in the comparison countries at 27.9 pupils. For middle schools, only Korea has a larger number of pupils per class. Much has been written about the relationship between class size and educational achievement. Even if a link has not been proven unequivocally, it seems clear that larger classes are harder on teachers, and that they lower the quality of the educational climate for pupils.

Number of pupils per class in public schools

The research also shows that teachers in Israel are paid relatively low salaries. Salary is one of the most important factors in attracting and retaining high quality teachers. Yet teacher salaries in Israel, although significantly improved in recent years, are still low relative to the OECD average and relative to the salaries received by other academically-educated workers within Israel. In 2012, an inexperienced primary school teacher with a BA degree in Israel earned about 67% of the average salary of a teacher with similar characteristics in the OECD.  With seniority the gap decreases slightly, with the salary level in Israel at 88% of a comparable teacher in the OECD. In lower secondary schools, the gap is even larger – 59% and 72%, respectively.

Teachers' annual salaries in compared countries

An additional criterion for examining international exam scores is Israel’s expenditure per pupil relative to per capita GDP. In 2011, the expenditure per preschool pupil relative to per capita GDP stood at 13%, versus 21% in the OECD. At the secondary school level, the expenditure per pupil was 19% versus 26% on average in the OECD. Only at the primary school level does Israel have a ratio that is similar to the OECD average – 23%.

There was a decrease in Israel’s preschool and secondary school per pupil expenditure relative to per capita GDP from 2005 to 2011 because, while expenditure for preschool and secondary education in Israel remained constant during this period, per capita GDP grew. For primary schools, however, expenditures did grow more relative to per capita GDP (likely due to the “New Horizon” wage agreements signed in 2008).

It is important to note that Israel has a much higher fertility rate than the OECD countries (3.0 vs. 1.7 children, on average). As such, it is more challenging for Israel to pay as much on education per child as OECD countries. While Israel made a substantial increase in its educational investment in the early 2000’s, the exceptionally large increase in its pupil population muted the effect of this increase when calculating per pupil expenditure.

Per pupil expenditure in the education system

Given the above conditions, there is no reason to expect Israeli pupils to perform better on international exams than they are currently performing. Regardless, the real question is whether or not education policy makers and opinion-shapers (in Israel and elsewhere) should attach great importance to the international exams, and especially to their country’s ranking. Do high scores on international exams predict a better economic future for the country in question?

The study finds that there is no proven link between a country’s past educational achievements and its current economic functioning. Thus, for example, the correlation between the achievements of a country’s pupils on the SIMS exam (which tests student performance in mathematics) in 1985 and the per capita GDP measured in 2010 was negative and close to zero (-0.09). The results support the notion that knowledge conveyed through the education system is just one of many components that affect the future economy. Additionally, international tests do not necessarily reflect the level of pupils’ knowledge.

Instead, Blass argues, greater weight should be given to other measures for assessing Israel’s educational success. Although other education systems have fared far better in international test scores, and despite all of its problems, the achievements of Israeli society in the fields of economics, culture and science (including Nobel Prize winners) indicate that it is doing quite well.

Graduates of Israel’s education system have registered a high number of patents relative to other countries, which also testifies to their originality and creativity. In 2008, Israel was ranked third in the world in the number of patents per billion dollars of GDP, and showed a large lead over those countries whose pupils scored higher on the 1985 SIMS tests. In the US, for example, whose score in 1985 was higher than Israel’s by a point and a half, only 1.12 patents per billion dollars of GDP were registered in 2008, while in Israel the number was 2.58.

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