As the academic year kicked off this week, the Hebrew University honored the incoming freshman who received the highest grade on the psychometric entrance exam. The winner was Hamza Morad, of the Arab-Muslim town Bu’eine Nujeidat in the North.

Unfortunately Morad is far from representative of the Arab population as a whole. Though Arabs make up about a fifth of the total Israeli population – and among collegeage Israelis, they probably make up even more due to higher-than-average fertility rates – only 11 percent end up enrolling in one of the institutes for higher education, according to the Council for Higher Education (CHE).

More significantly, while 44% of Jews leave high school meeting the minimum academic requirements needed to go on to higher education, only 22% of Arab students do.

One positive step that this government has already taken is to create a five-year NIS 300 million program, launched last year, that aims to reduce the gaps between Jewish and Arab Israelis.

Institutions of higher learning will receive funding to set up workshops to improve Arab students’ Hebrew and provide other forms of academic support. Universities and colleges will also be required to come up with plans for recruiting more Arab students. And the CHE will begin operating information centers in Arab towns that will provide academic guidance to potential students.

However, while the five-year program is a step in the right direction, more needs to be done to narrow the gaps in academic achievement that begin at the primary school level. According to a 2003 study conducted in the United Kingdom, students who were failing school by age 11 had only a 25% chance of meeting the standard at age 14, and those failing at 14 had only a 6% chance of meeting high school graduation requirements. Other studies have shown that by age seven, children who score in the top 20% in math and literacy tests are already twice as likely to complete a university degree as children in the bottom 20%.

Arab students consistently score lower than Jewish students on exams such as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). On the last Meitzav – a Hebrew acronym for School Efficiency and Growth Index – the average Jewish eighth-grader received a math score that was 46 points higher than the average Arab student.

ADMITTEDLY THE gap between high and low socioeconomic strata within the Jewish population is even higher than the gap between the average Arab student and the average Jewish student. For instance, Jewish students from the highest socioeconomic group received a math score that was 84 points higher than the poorest Jewish group’s. And the gaps between rich and poor Jews were wider than the gaps between Arabs and Jews in English and science as well. In fact, after adjusting for socioeconomic differences, it could be that there is no significant gap in academic achievement between Jews and Arabs.

But this does not explain why Arab schools are consistently subject to discrimination when it comes to government funding. Over the past decade, the Education Ministry funded on average 47.2 hours of weekly teaching hours for the weakest Arab schools, compared to 72.2 hours for national religious schools and 56.2 hours for secular Jewish schools.

True, numerous studies have shown that extra funding does not necessarily translate into academic improvement. But it does reveal government preferences.

If the government is sincerely interested in increasing the number of Arab students who go on to university and college and, as a result, equipping them to integrate better into the labor force, resources and reforms – particularly schemes that attract higher-quality teachers – must focus on primary education. While it is important to provide aid to Arab high school graduates and first-year university students, tens of thousands of Arab children never even graduate from high school – let alone enter university – due, in part, to substandard elementary school education.

Few students – whether Arab or Jewish – will score as high as Morad did on the psychometric exam. But improving elementary school education can have a crucial impact on the academic destinies of thousands of children. That’s where government efforts should be focused.

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