Israeli students’ poor performance in a recent international exam shows the “colossal failure” of the country in its efforts to prepare its students for the future, Dan Ben-David, executive director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Research in Israel, said on Wednesday.

“This is a colossal failure that is all man-made. It wasn’t like this once upon a time, and there’s no justification for a country that’s cleaning up in Nobel Prizes and has some of the best universities in the world to be in this situation,” Ben-David said.

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According to the results released on Tuesday, Israel placed in the bottom half of the international Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams for 2009, placing 36th out of 64 countries in the reading section of the exam.

The results were worse in the sciences and mathematics section, where Israel was ranked 41. All of Israel’s scores were significantly lower than the OECD average.

PISA evaluates 15-year-old students from around the world and is held every three years. The test is conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, of which Israel is a member.

The reading section of the test focuses on reading comprehension, as opposed to spelling or vocabulary.

In the last test, held in 2006 Israel placed 40th out of 57 countries in both reading and mathematics.

The test was conducted in Israel in March 2009, and involved 5,761 students. Altogether, 470,000 students in 64 countries took part in the test.

Israeli students earned a score of 474 for reading, below the OECD average of 493, but 35 points higher than Israel scored in 2006. Israel thus climbed four slots, to 36 out of 64 states.

On the mathematics portion, Israeli students earned a score of 447, five points higher than the last test. The average OECD score was 496.

In science, Israeli students received an average score of 455, 46 below the OECD average.

Ben-David said the results bode poorly for Israel’s future.

“The implications are ominous.

These children who aren’t able to compete with children from OECD countries in school – how will they compete in the marketplace with them?” he asked.

Ben-David said there was no reason Israeli schoolchildren could not lead the pack of OECD students.

“It’s not even if we should be among the leaders, we should be leading the pack, because we are in other things. Our universities are better, our hitech industry is better and we’re raking in Nobel Prizes,” he said. “Over the past 10 years that our kids have been in last place, the previous generation has been doing well.”

Ben-David said Israel’s school system is failing in three main areas: what schools teach, the quality of teachers, and the way the system does not reward achievement or punish failure.

Ben-David said the figures of the test are even more worrying because they don’t take into account the haredi school system. He added that the figures are keeping with a number of studies carried out by the Taub Center in recent years that have shown Israeli students at the bottom of the 25 leading countries in the OECD.

If the situation does not improve, Israel will not be able to compete internationally and socioeconomic gaps will only widen, Ben David added.

Following the release of the figures, Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar (Likud) said Tuesday, “Israel has made a serious leap in its achievements and had the third-highest improvement of any country.”

Sa’ar added, however, that he wasn’t content with the results and said that his goal is “to raise these achievements. I am certain that in the next tests we will climb higher.”

In the 2009 PISA, Shanghai- China scored at the top of the list, in its first year participating in the test. It was followed by Korea, Finland, Hong Kong- China, and Singapore in the top five.

The Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan came in last, scoring 50 points lower on the reading test than the secondto- last country, Azerbaijan.

According to the OECD, the PISA, which tested students in 33 OECD countries and 41 partner countries and economies, “focuses on young peoples’ ability to use their knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges. This orientation reflects a change in the goals and objectives of curricula themselves, which are increasingly concerned with what students can do with what they learn at school and not merely with whether they have mastered specific curricular content.”

The highest performing OECD member country was Korea, with 539 points and the lowest was Mexico with an average score of 425. According to the OECD, the 114 point difference between the two countries is the equivalent of more than two school years.

The difference between firstplace China and last-place Kyrgyzstan, 242 points, is even more severe, representing some six years of formal schooling.

Girls outperformed boys in reading assessment in every participating country. In the OECD countries, they scored an average of 39 points higher, the equivalent of one year of schooling. In Israel, girls’ performance in reading assessment has improved by 35 points since 2000, while for boys it has increased by 9 points.

In the 2009 results, Israel found itself among the countries where the socioeconomic level of a student’s family makes a large difference in their performance. The test found that in Israel, the differences in performance for students from average socioeconomic backgrounds and those from advanced backgrounds is, on average, equivalent to more than a year’s worth of education.

On Wednesday, the Knesset Education Committee voted to delay a plan to reduce the number of students in classrooms in the first and second grades, and a move to add 10 extra schooling hours.

The government had asked for the delay, citing budgetary reasons.

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