When you can't massage the numbers

Analysis: A four-year rise in matriculation rates painted a false, rosy picture.

student school 88 (photo credit: )
student school 88
(photo credit: )
Two-and-a-half years ago, two separate academic committees set out to inspect the standard of the matriculation examinations. There had been a creeping suspicion that they were getting easier over the years. Limor Livnat, the education minister who trumpeted her success in boosting matriculation eligibility year after year, wasn't interested in the potential results; funding and cooperation were withheld and the studies weren't completed. That didn't change the facts. Senior educators and ministry officials have been whispering for years that the continuing uninterrupted rise in eligibility over the last four decades wasn't due just to the improvement in Israeli teenagers' intelligence or the enhanced skills of teachers. There was a lot of artificial coloring in the rosy picture. With each education minister came a different plan to improve matriculation results. There was the lottery system, which decided every year the subjects upon which the students would be examined. Then there was the mikud system, in which they were informed in advance of the specific fields on which they would be tested. Students who failed were offered a second chance almost immediately. Statistical "factors" artificially boosted the results in different subjects and, suddenly, no less than 11 percent of the students were receiving various exemptions for "learning disabilities." Rumors abounded of quiet pressure applied upon educators to go easy in checking the examinations and the magen scores given by the schools. None of this was allowed to ruin the minister's annual press conferences. The latest rises were announced amid fanfare and group back-patting. Few were willing to pose the obvious question: How were the results in the local examinations going up while Israel's students were steadily going down in the rankings on international tests, behind all of the developed countries in Europe, North America and the Far East? On Tuesday the ongoing farce finally was revealed. The grade manufacturing system finally reached its limit. Ministry officials tried to tie the slump in this year's statistics to the number of religious youths who didn't participate in the examinations because of the disengagement protests, but that didn't explain the drastic drop in eligibility in the Arab and immigrant sectors. All the sectors are down this year, and this can only mean one thing. The tricks aren't working anymore; no matter how they massage the figures, make the questions easier and leak them in advance, the fundamental failing of Israeli education cannot be hidden any longer. The curriculum, teaching methods, discipline and testing techniques are all badly in need of overhaul. The new education minister, Yuli Tamir, made out yesterday as though the budget cuts were at fault. But the results had been going up for years despite hundreds of millions being cut annually from the education budget. The education crisis calls for bold and imaginative steps. Tamir has to be prepared to take on the teachers' unions, the ministry hierarchy, parents groups and any other vested interests. Simply throwing money at the problems won't make them go away. Doctoring the figures doesn't work anymore either.