(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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.