International PISA test postponed due to pressure by teachers

The Education Ministry announced Monday that it would postpone the international PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) test, which several thousand tenth-graders were scheduled to take beginning next Sunday. The test will be postponed for approximately five weeks, until after Pessah vacation. The Secondary School Teachers Association is refusing to administer the exam, holding the position that teachers should either refuse to distribute the tests, dismiss the classes in which students are slated to take them, or perhaps even go on strike to prevent them from being taken. One source affiliated with the teachers unions suggested that the Ministry may well have made its decision in order to shift responsibility for negotiating the exam's administration onto the next education minister. According to the Ministry, the postponement of the exam - which will be administered by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 58 countries - was approved by the OECD. Shortly before the Ministry's announcement, Secondary School Teachers Association chair Ran Erez told The Jerusalem Post that his organization had not been informed of any changes in scheduling. "The Ministry is keeping us in the dark," he said. First conducted in 2000, the PISA tests take place every three years among sample groups of 15-year-old students. Their purpose is to assess to what degree students near the end of compulsory education have acquired some of the knowledge and skills essential for full participation in contemporary adult society. PISA is considered to be the most comprehensive international exam of its kind. It also collects personal, family-related and institutional data to help explain variations in achievement in different countries. This year, the focus of the test is scientific literacy. In 2003, Israeli students first participated in the test, and scored in the lowest quartile among the 40 participating countries in all categories, including reading, math and science skills. The test also revealed that a third of Israeli junior high students lacked basic reading skills. For the most part, the only countries whose students scored lower than Israeli students were third-world countries. In addition, the test also revealed Israel was one of the countries with the largest gaps in achievement between children from different socio-economic backgrounds. The low scores were one of the main catalysts for the creation of the Dovrat Committee that same year. In December, the teachers' organizations declared a labor dispute with the Ministry of Education following Ministry instructions to prepare students for the 2006 PISA tests. The teachers argued that they could not adequately prepare students for the test while preparing them for the matriculation exams, and demanded at least one additional weekly hour per subject in order to prepare students for the test. Last month, the Secondary School Teachers Association once again informed Education Minister Meir Sheetrit that teachers would not prepare their students for the tests, arguing that they had been imposed on them by his predecessor, Limor Livnat. "Former Minister Livnat wanted Israel to participate in the test as a media gimmick, in order to show that during her tenure the education system had gotten better," Erez told the Post on Monday. "One has to take into account that the curriculum in Israeli schools is different from that in OECD countries. Asking Israeli students to take it is like asking soccer players to play basketball." Erez also criticized the Ministry for trying to persuade teachers to prepare students for the test only in the 150 sample schools that were selected to take the test. "That's what I call an 'Isra-bluff,'" he said. "These are tests that are supposed to test the level of education in the country - and this cannot be achieved if only the students in the sample are prepared in advance." At this point, Erez said, there was no further basis for negotiations with the Ministry, independently of whether or not the test was postponed.