Israeli matriculation exams: Less is more

Rather than teaching pupils how to learn, the high schools spend much of their time teaching them how to pass the exams.

June 3, 2013 21:07
3 minute read.

education 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

Israel’s new education minister, Shai Peron, has raised a most welcome proposal: to reduce the number of matriculation exams administered to Israeli pupils. In light of the problems that afflict our current system – problems of which we are all too aware – this proposal is indeed worthy of support. However, we must also remember that reducing the number of exams is not enough.

Israel’s secondary education system needs much more substantive change, both in terms of the way in which grades are calculated and in terms of university admissions criteria. One need not mince words regarding the present state of affairs: a considerable portion of Grade 12 is devoted to preparation for matriculation exams and not to learning. In many institutions educational activity officially ends when the Passover vacation begins, and thousands of matriculation certificates encompass subjects such as meteorology, human resource management and dance – important and worthwhile disciplines that nevertheless have no place in high school, which is supposed to provide pupils with an educational groundwork, not offer them specializations.

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The large number of matriculation subjects creates a still larger problem: the pupil learns to orient his studies toward an “attractive” and easy track, and even receives bonus points for taking matriculation exams at the 5-unit level. The outcome: only 20 percent of hi-tech Israel’s high school pupils study a science subject of any kind at the 5-unit level.

The matriculation exams’ distribution over a three-year period causes matters of minor concern to take undue priority.

Rather than teaching pupils how to learn, the high schools spend much of their time teaching them how to pass the exams. Rather than cultivating the critical thinking skills of 16- to 18-year-olds and teaching them how to reflect and how to conduct research, the schools are training them for the “moment of truth” – the moment of testing. Knowledge is less important than test-taking skills and exam scores.

But it is not only the pupils who are subject to this preoccupation with testing.

Teachers, school principals and the schools themselves are assessed (almost solely) in terms of their pupils’ test scores.

The consequences are predictable: attempts to expel pupils whose scores might lower the school average (despite the prohibition on such measures), deliberately inflated high school internal scores, dismissal of outstanding teachers who emphasize education rather than “delivering the goods,” i.e., test scores.

What is needed is far-reaching, profound change. Such change cannot happen within a year, or even within one ministerial term. The change will have to include, for example, the return of vocational schools to a legitimate range of study disciplines, and the restoration of the vocational matriculation certificate’s lost honor. Not every pupil is equipped, or even desires, to attend an academically-oriented high school. Not every high school graduate wants to go on to university, or should. Society needs skilled technicians, professional office workers and first-class mechanics no less than it needs astrophysicists, brain surgeons and Bible teachers.

The envisioned comprehensive change will also, necessarily, entail reducing the number of matriculation exams. There is no substitute for nationwide, uniform and comparative testing in mathematics, English, Hebrew, Bible and Civics. To these five main subjects should be added one elective discipline, chosen by the pupil – but from a list of just 10 options in the sciences and the humanities. If we are insisting that ultra-Orthodox pupils study core curriculum subjects, we must demand no less of the general Israeli high school population! The Grade 10 matriculation exams should be eliminated, and Grade 11 pupils should be tested in only one or two subjects, so that these two years of high school can be devoted to meaningful study and to the provision of a quality education to Israeli teens. Matriculation certificates should therefore bear the scores earned by pupils on their internal school exams.

Altogether, the envisioned change will ensure that Israeli high school graduates who go on to pursue post-secondary study are better prepared for the academic world and its requirements. High schools and teachers will also benefit from the change, as it will enhance their autonomy and their ability to invest in meaningful educational activity. Teachers’ status will also be reinforced, after years of erosion.

The author is Bar-Ilan University’s vice president for research.

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