Student test scores show decline in math, science

Expert claims drops due to previous scores being artificially high; OECD places Israel near bottom of report on world education systems.

children in school 224.8 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
children in school 224.8
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
In yet another indication of the country's troubled education system, results of an international education survey released on Tuesday showed that Israel's scores in math in science have dropped significantly since 2003. In September, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a group of Westernized countries that measures growth and modernization around the world, placed Israel near the bottom of its report on the state of education systems around the world. Now the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) exams have placed Israel 24th out of 49 nations, five places lower than its ranking in 2003. In an additional round of science exams, Israel was placed 25th, two spots lower than it had been ranked in those tests previously. While the the low findings are certainly an indicator of work that needs to be done, they may also be the first realistic TIMSS results in nearly a decade, according to Dan Ben-David, director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Research and an economics professor at Tel Aviv University. Ben-David said 2003's numbers were inaccurate, as the Education Ministry chose to omit nearly 23 percent of the eligible students nationwide, effectively padding the stats. TIMSS allows countries to omit up to 5% of certain schools or students who would be considered difficult or resource-intensive to test, including special-needs students or pupils from small schools in rural areas - a loophole by which many countries abide rigidly. However, in 1999, Israel opted to omit 16% of the total student body eligible for TIMSS testing, and in 2003, that number jumped to 22.5%. "Obviously, if you throw out a quarter of the poorest-performing kids, the results are going to be higher," Ben-David said. "In 2003, they simply knocked off the bottom from the sample." Therefore, Ben-David speculated, the results released on Monday, which were gathered during 2007, paint a picture of the math and science level among Israeli students that more closely resembles the reality of the last 10 years. "My guess is that [Education Minister] Yuli Tamir went with the normal numbers this time, without all the omissions, and that's why we're seeing this decline," Ben-David said. "It's a decline that's been generated." The education minister herself alluded to such a revelation, albeit vaguely, in an official ministry response that quoted Tamir as saying, "An education minister has to decide whether they are interested in creating an image of success during their tenure, or creating an actual, fundamental change within the education system as a whole. I have chosen to make that change, which includes comprehensive reforms in the system and in the thought process of instruction and learning." Yet, as Ben-David pointed out, even if the new numbers are based on a renewed push for transparency within the Education Ministry, and the idea is to push for real change as opposed to unrealistic successes, the country's education system is in severe disrepair. "You're not going to get any results without reform," Ben-David said. "And the reforms we need fall into three categories: teachers, curriculum and management. We need teachers who are qualified to teach, meaning teachers should get a BA in whatever field they plan on teaching and then learn how to teach, not the other way around. We need to go back to the basics on our curriculum, which means kids need to learn the basic skills they will need before going out to the workforce - reading, writing, math; then we can talk about medicine." Regarding management, "once you have good teachers teaching the right things, you need to give them incentives to continue and try harder. Reward good teachers... for their efforts," Ben-David went on. "But we're really far away from that," he said. "And until we enact these reforms, don't expect any surprises in test results. There can't be any more shortcuts." Some 4,300 students from fourth- and eighth-grade classes were given the TIMSS tests, which were administered by the International Association for the Evaluation of Education Achievement (IAEEA). Singapore scored first place in the science exams, followed by Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. Ghana placed last out of all the nations tested. Israel, while far from scoring among the top nations, did outpace Egypt, Kuwait and Iran. Taiwan held the highest score in mathematics, followed by South Korea, Singapore and Hong-Kong. Israel scored higher than Lebanon, Jordan, Thailand and Indonesia. Qatar came in last. Also on Tuesday, results were published from the national "Meitzav" exams, which test elementary and junior high school students on how well benchmarks and standards specified in school curricula are being met. Those results, while relatively unchanged from previous years, were equally alarming, with the eighth-grade averages for science and technology below 60% and math as low as 44%.