Israel’s eighth grade pupils’ achievements in science and mathematics have decreased internationally, according to the results released Tuesday of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.
The TIMSS, the longest-running international assessment of mathematics and science education in the world, has been administered every four years since 1995, sponsored by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement in Amsterdam. This year 39 countries were ranked.
According to the results, the average Israeli score in mathematics stood at 511 points, ranking Israel 16th – down from 516 points and 7th place in the 2011 rankings. This places Israel 110 points below Singapore, the top performer, and 30 points above the international average of 481.
In science, Israeli pupils scored an average of 507 points, ranking Israel 19th, down from 516 points in 2011 and a ranking of 13. The score reveals a 90-point gap between Israel and the top performing country, Singapore, and it is 21 points above the international average of 486.
“To all those that click their tongue and whoever needed further proof of the urgent need for math reform, these findings, which were carried out under the previous government, prove that it has gotten to a stage of national emergency in the field of science and mathematics,” Education Minister Naftali Bennett said Tuesday.
“For the future of this country and for the Nobel Prize and the next Waze developers, we will continue to act to double the number of students taking five units [the highest level] in mathematics, even if there is criticism of some sort or another,” he added.
Though Israeli pupils only dropped a few points in the test scores – five points in math and nine points in science – their rankings compared to other countries dramatically declined.
Dr. Ariel Heimann, CEO of the Davidson Institute for Science Education, a branch of the Weizmann Institute of Science, told The Jerusalem Post that if Israel doesn’t improve its rankings, then this in itself is considered a decrease, because other countries did increase their scores and advance.
“We live in a global world, and especially when we call ourselves the start-up nation and this comes to light with regards to math and science, this is a major problem,” he said.
Heimann said these results are so critical, because if pupils at the eighth grade level do not have the ability to study STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, they won’t learn advanced physics and math in high school, which in turn means they won’t go into university to study these fields.
He said that today there is a lack of scientists and engineers in both the hi-tech and lowtech fields.
“The danger that stems from not having engineers and scientists in some 10-15 years is an existential threat to Israel, more so than the Iranian bomb – and we are currently headed down this path,” he said.
Heimann attributed the results of the rankings to two major factors: a lack of excellent teachers in STEM subjects and the “problematic social messages being transmitted to our children.”
“There are not enough students in chemistry, because there are not enough chemistry teachers – 50% of schools don’t have chemistry teachers, mainly in the periphery,” he said.
He also noted that in today’s society “making money” is valued above all else – a message that is conveyed to youth.
“To become a scientist is a long and hard process and youth want to get rich quick and not work so hard – we have problematic social messages and this is something we need to change,” he noted.
On a positive note, Heimann said that there were no gender gaps in the test scores between girls and boys at the eighth grade level.
“This means that the potential of girls and boys is the same. We have to encourage these eighth graders to continue to study sciences and math – this is a huge asset that we aren’t taking advantage of,” he said.
Still, Heimann said he is optimistic about the future, noting Israeli assets such as ingenuity and a desire to always think outside the box.
The Davidson Institute head asserted that, by using the assets currently available to Israel, the situation is still reversible. For example, utilizing the Internet to compensate for the lack of chemistry teachers in the periphery by offering online classes in the field, and thereby helping to minimize socioeconomic gaps.
“If we understand the importance of STEM, then I believe that we will go down the right path and continue to be the start-up nation,” he concluded.
In Israel, some 5,512 eighth grade pupils from 200 schools, excluding ultra-Orthodox and special needs schools, were tested for the TIMSS in April and May 2015.
According to the National Authority for Measurement and Evaluation in Education, the results indicated that there were significant gaps in test scores among different population groups.
With regard to ethnic group, the results indicated that Hebrew-speaking students scored some 70 points higher in mathematics and science compared to their Arabic-speaking counterparts.
With regard to socioeconomic status, the data showed gaps of some 110 points between Hebrew-speaking pupils from high and low socioeconomic standing and gaps of some 130 points between Arabic-speaking pupils from different socioeconomic backgrounds.
The Education Ministry said the TIMSS results show that “students in Israel maintained their achievements since 2011.”
“The data show that Israel stands above the international average of participating countries. Throughout the years since 1999 the achievements of students in the education system are on a rising trend,” the ministry said.
The ministry conceded that there were substantial gaps in test scores, though added that the percentage of students who excelled in math and science had increased, though the percentage of students who scored below average also increased.