Press Release – Achievements and Gaps: The Education System in Israel – A Status Report

Embargo until Monday (February 10), 17:00

Following the public storm over the disappointing achievements of Israel’s students relative to students from other OECD countries on the latest international PISA exams, and considering the large gaps between Jewish and Arab students, the Taub Center is publishing a new study by senior researcher Nachum Blass on the education system in Israel.

The study examines educational achievement gaps by sector and socioeconomic background. Gaps in enrollment rates and academic achievements are based on data from Israel as well as the results of international exams for students in formal education (ages 3-18). Findings indicate a continuous improvement – although the past few years have seen a noticeable slowdown – in student achievement for both Jews and Arabs, as well as a narrowing of the gaps between the sectors, especially within similar socioeconomic groupings.

Nevertheless, the gaps between strong and weak students remain great, and in an international comparison, Israel ranks low for student achievement and high for achievement gaps. Enrollment rates for all students are close to the maximum, although in the youngest age groups (ages 3-4) and in the 17-year-old cohort, there are still notable differences between rates in the Jewish and Arab sectors, and in particular, within the Bedouin sector.

Existing educational frameworks allow choice and variety, but create segregation and a widening of gaps

The education system attempts to allow parents and student a choice between frameworks to meet their varied needs, while trying to maintain equality. In some instances, variety causes segregation and a widening of gaps.

In preschool (ages 3-5), enrollment is by catchment areas set by the local authorities. For children in Hebrew education (for the most part Jewish children), there is a choice between State preschools, State-religious, Haredi, and private preschools. It appears that many parents of 3-4-year-olds use the freedom of choice to choose a framework outside of their catchment area. Evidence of this is the amount of private expenditure on preschool especially among those in the highest income quintile. That is, even after the implementation of the Compulsory Education Law for Ages 3-4 in 2013, parents of preschoolers seek preschool frameworks for their children that result in stratification. Similar opportunities exist in the Arab educational sector, although due to the overall weaker socioeconomic status of this population, the numbers seeking private preschool frameworks are considerably lower.

In primary school, the share of those seeking private frameworks (recognized but unofficial education) within the Hebrew system is low, while within the Arab system, the share is more than 25%. Students in these frameworks are in the most affluent deciles. Their choice shows, among other things, the dissatisfaction with official education, and it is likely to increase inequalities in this sector.

Stratification in primary schools stems from the fact that many schools are considered “special” (like those for the arts) as well as from the elimination of catchment areas and the creation of combined catchment areas for specific schools. Studies in special schools most often include additional costs, sometimes quite high, as well as entrance exams. Geo-political realities are the main reason for the separation between Hebrew and Arab schools.

A phenomenon worth mentioning is the rise in the number of Jewish residential areas with Arab Israeli residents and the number of Arab Israeli parents who choose to send their children to schools in the Hebrew education system. This brings up issues like should there be Arab schools in Jewish localities? Does the number of Arab Israeli students in Hebrew schools impact the school environment or culture?

With regard to middle schools, the same factors at work creating differences between primary schools are also at work here. An added factor is ability grouping. Although grouping is along educational criteria, in practice, it creates differentiation along socioeconomic lines.

In high school, the restrictions that the Ministry of Education has placed on admissions requirements and parents’ payments are disappearing and parents and schools have complete freedom in a way that creates differentiation that is noted in the socioeconomic composition of their student body, as well as in the study majors offered by the school and the prestige attached to them. Within schools, the differentiation is expressed for the most part in tracking into academic and technological education tracks.

A notable improvement in student achievements, especially among Arab Israelis, although gaps persist

The primary goal of education is seen as gaining skills and content as measured by various tests. Taub Center data indicate a trend towards improving achievement scores and a narrowing of gaps since the start of international testing in the early 2000s and in the Meitzav exams since 2007. The trend is especially notable among Arab Israelis, although gaps are still large. In international comparisons, Israel ranks low in terms of achievements and high in terms of gaps.

In primary schools. Between 2008 and 2017, student scores in the 5th grade Meitzav exams rose by about 13% in mathematics and about 8% in English, with the greatest gains in the Arab education system – 22% and 13% respectively. (The Ministry of Education has reservations regarding the results of the 2018, and the 2019 Meitzav exams were changed and so they were not included in this study.) The data indicate a narrowing of achievement gaps between the two sectors. In an international comparison, the improvement in student scores in Israel exceeds those in other countries.

Looking at the achievement gaps between students in math and English – both between and within sectors – while controlling for the socioeconomic status of the school (Nurture Index), findings show large differences between the achievements of students at the highest status and those at the lowest. Looking at student achievements within the same socioeconomic group shows that between sector gaps in 5th grade have narrowed, especially in English, and in 2017, scores in Arab education at every socioeconomic level were actually higher than those of students in Hebrew education. What is more, gaps between students in schools serving the most affluent population and those serving the weakest Nurture Index decile actually narrowed substantially – across both systems and within each system, in math and in English.

Looking at the individual (as opposed to the school), clearly indicates a strong link between student characteristics and Meitzav achievement, and that achievements of students in Hebrew education are superior to those in Arab education. The data also show that the gap between Hebrew and Arab educated students narrowed greatly when socioeconomic background is controlled (as opposed to gaps between all students in Hebrew education and all students in Arab education).

In an international comparison, on the PIRLS exam (testing 4th grade reading literacy), Israel ranks relatively low – 29 out of 50 countries, and relatively high in terms of student gaps – 13. The main reason is the large gaps between students in Hebrew versus Arab education (96 points, when each system is tested in its mother tongue). A look within each socioeconomic grouping reveals that gaps have narrowed, although they remain large (65 for the lowest level socioeconomic group).

“There are considerable gaps between Jewish and Arab student achievement and between students from high and low socioeconomic groups, both at the national and international levels. At the same time, there are also notable improvements in the level of achievement and in the narrowing of these gaps,” says Taub Center researcher Nachum Blass.

In middle schools. A look at 8th grade Meitzav scores between 2008 and 2017 shows a similar picture to primary school. Achievement gaps are large between sectors in all subjects, although the gaps have narrowed in all cases. In English and math, the decrease in gaps was more moderate, while in the sciences, the narrowing was substantial: the average score in Arab education went up by 110 points, while in Hebrew education, it rose by 79 points. It seems that the rising trend within Arab Israeli society to join the medical and engineering professions has served to increase the motivation among their students to invest more in these subjects.

When examining the data by socioeconomic background, the Taub Center findings paint a clear picture: when background variables are the same, gaps between the sectors are smaller and narrowing. The gap in math between Arab Israeli and Jewish students in the low socioeconomic grouping which in 2008 was 19 points, narrowed in 2017 to 1 point, and in English, the situation is much the same.

Among students from high socioeconomic groups, the gap narrowed from 16 to 9 points. In science, the data changed drastically: scores of students in Arab education rose higher than those of students in Hebrew education, at all socioeconomic levels.

In an international comparison, on the TIMSS exams, there is a rise in scores over the years in both sectors, with the greatest increase in the Arab education sector (63 points versus 51 in Hebrew education); the increase is also at a faster rate than the average in other countries. The improving trend stopped in 2011, though.

In high schools. Bagrut qualification – which is the key to socioeconomic mobility – is perceived by the public as the central criteria of success or failure of the education system (this is not necessarily the case among educators). The Taub Center study examined bagrut qualification rates and found that among the overall cohort and using the most stringent method for testing success (that is, including Haredim and Arab Israelis from East Jerusalem where many or most do not take the exams), qualification rates still rose substantially between 1990 and 2015.

The Taub Center study also looked at those students with a bagrut qualification that fulfills requirements for admission to higher education. Results show that the student achievement gaps grew between students from different socioeconomic groupings among Jews, but did not change and even narrowed between Arab Israeli students. In addition, as mother’s years of education increase and the socioeconomic status of the residential locality rise – the bagrut qualification rates also rise .

In an international comparison, according to PISA exam scores, Israel’s students’ scores are lower than the overall country average and the gaps between the strongest and the weakest students are the greatest. These findings are not surprising considering the size of Israel’s GDP, per student expenditure, class size, and the poverty rate among Israel’s students.

Nevertheless, the average score in Israel has improved since 2006 versus an overall decline in the OECD average (although since 2012 the improvement in Israel’s scores has stopped and even reversed somewhat, and the gaps have grown).

In a breakdown by population groupings, the scores of Hebrew speaking students on the 2018 PISA exams were higher than the OECD average (506 versus 487), while the achievements of Arab speakers was much lower (362) and declined almost 40 points between 2006 to 2018. Keeping in mind the other data indicating improvements in Arab student achievements and a narrowing of between sector gaps, this is a surprising finding.

“The persistence of gaps, and the lack of improvement in student achievement and narrowing of gaps, demand that the education system and those at its top take immediate action, especially following the disappointing results of the PISA exams,” says senior researcher Nachum Blass.

The President of the Taub Center, Prof. Avi Weiss, adds, “There is a rising need to examine the gap between the improvement in student achievements seen in national exams in Israel and the relatively low results relative to the OECD, and to understand why improvements in Israeli students test scores have come to a halt. The notable improvement in Arab Israeli scores is blessed, but we need to continue to work to narrow gaps between the sectors.”

The Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel is an independent, non-partisan socioeconomic research institute. The Center provides decision makers and the public with research and findings on some of the most critical issues facing Israel in the areas of education, health, welfare, labor markets and economic policy in order to impact the decision-making process in Israel and to advance the well-being of all Israelis.

For details, or to arrange an interview, please contact Anat Sella-Koren, Director of Marketing, Communications and Government Relations at the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel: 050-690-9749; 02 567 1818 ext. 110.