Civil service mulls new exam for Ethiopians

Failure to find Ethiopian for absorption ministry post highlighted cultural biases in the exam's format.

Ethiopians 88 (photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
Ethiopians 88
(photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
The Civil Service Commission, which is responsible for recruiting the bulk of government workers, is considering changes to its standard entrance exam after a recent bid by the Immigrant Absorption Ministry to find an Ethiopian Israeli to head its expanded Department of Ethiopian Immigrant Absorption has highlighted cultural biases in the exam's format, The Jerusalem Post has learned. A total of 63 candidates - both Ethiopian and not - applied for the prestigious position and last month took the standardized three-hour exam, a mix of mathematics, Hebrew, logical and psychometric-type questions. Of the initial group, more than half of the candidates were of Ethiopian origin, and of those, none passed to the next round of the process. According to Meital Noy, spokeswoman for the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, the rules of the tender dictated that the job be open to any person who chose to apply and that the policy of the Civil Service Commission is to allow only the eight candidates with the highest scores to pass to the next stage. "I am very sorry that no one from the Ethiopian community got to the final stages of the process," Erez Halfon, director-general of the ministry, said in a statement after the Post uncovered the incident. "This office is already actively trying to change the tests to better suit the community and so that we can find suitable Ethiopian Israelis to take on senior positions within the ministry." "I think that discrimination is too strong a word to use," said B., one of the Ethiopian candidates who preferred to remain anonymous. "However, I can tell you that of the people who [took the test], at least one of them is more than capable of taking on this role." Among those who tried out for the position were Ethiopian professionals with a variety of different backgrounds, including some who already hold fairly senior positions in non-profit organizations. Most of them have academic degrees and at least one of the candidates is already employed by the ministry in a lesser capacity. Noy said that Halfon did not appoint any of the non-Ethiopian candidates that reached the final stages of the application process. She said that he had already met with the Civil Service Commission to urge them to change the admissions tests and the terms of the tenders to take into account the ethnic and cultural background of new immigrants from certain cultures. A spokesman for the Civil Service Commission said that the office was still looking into the incident but that it was expected to change the conditions of this specific tender to allow only those of Ethiopian origin to apply. He did not have any figures on how well other new immigrants performed on the test. Another candidate, E., who currently runs a non-government organization in the field of education, told the Post that the problem was that such a knowledge-based exam reflects the knowledge of the person who is writing the questions. "If that person's knowledge widely differs from that of the person taking the test, then it is very likely there will be discrepancies in the results," he explained. "It is unsurprising that these people did not succeed in this test," commented Anat Cagan, director of Instrumental Enrichment Programs at the Feuerstein Institute in Jerusalem, which has been intensively examining why Ethiopian immigrants failed to do as well on such standardized tests as native-born Israelis. "There are two problems. First is that the test is culture-based and the Ethiopians have a very different culture than Israelis. The intensity of this kind of test does not suit them. Secondly, the test checks immediate knowledge and not their potential to fulfill the job in the future." She added that it was also the environment surrounding such tests, with time pressures and extreme competition between the candidates that tended to leave immigrants from Ethiopia, as well as other remote regions such as Jews from the Caucasus Mountains, at a great disadvantage. Even for those from ethnic minorities who were born in Israel or came here at a very young age, said Cagan, the cultural difference between them and other Israelis is stark. "Many of these children have no guidance from their parents, who speak a totally different language [both verbally and culturally]," she said. At Feuerstein, Cagan's team has already developed alternative testing methods, which it believes will better assess the capabilities of Ethiopian Israelis in such standardized exams as that of the civil service. In recent months, the IDF has instituted some of Feuerstein's tests and, claimed Cagan, Ethiopian army recruits that underwent these specially created tests increased their psychometric scores by at least 30 percent. "This is a known problem," commented Avi Masfin, spokesman of the Israel Association of Ethiopian Jews, which has been actively lobbying the government to change the standard entrance exams. A study by the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews last year showed that despite a sharp rise in the number of Ethiopian Israelis completing higher education, many qualified Ethiopians were failing to secure employment in government offices and the civil service. Masfin added that failing the test was not an indication of whether those who tried out were able to take on a position of such responsibility, because it was clear from the list of candidates that many were highly capable.