Out there: Test Madness

Israel’s bagrut (matriculation) system remains a deep, dark mystery to me.

Standardized test 311 (photo credit: Thinkstock)
Standardized test 311
(photo credit: Thinkstock)
In the nearly three decades I have lived in this country, many things that at first seemed stupid, weird or rude to me, now make enormous sense.
For instance, the Israeli habit of not putting screens on apartment and home windows. In the beginning, I thought this was just plain dumb, something that gave flies and mosquitoes free rein in domestic space.
Inquiring about the rationale, I was often told that screens block not only flying insects, but also much needed air flow during the hot summer months.
While I originally dismissed this as nuts, I’ve come to accept that – yes indeed – if you want to feel a breeze inside in the sweltering Israeli summer, keep the screens off (or at least open).
I’ve also come to appreciate the supremacy of the Israeli squeegee (sponga) to the American mop.
Whereas the mop just redistributes dirty water, the squeegee necessitates a constant flow of clean water.
And I’ve come to recognize the beauty of being able to ask friends and neighbors and mere acquaintances almost anything: from how much they make, to whether they are pregnant, to why they are still single, and how much they paid for their house.
Not because that knowledge necessarily serves any purpose, but just because it’s plain fun to know.
But one thing that still eludes me is the country’s educational system. With two kids out of high school, and another two well ensconced therein, Israel’s bagrut (matriculation) system remains a deep, dark mystery to me.
I don’t understand the point system. I don’t understand the magen, the relative weight given to regular schoolwork as opposed to the bagrut test. And I don’t understand the bonuses, or how the whole thing is scored. And all that is only on a technical level.
I also don’t understand it on a theoretical level.
Raised in an environment where a premium was placed on a broad – but shallow – liberal arts education (I know David Hume was a philosopher, but I can’t tell you what he philosophized; I know Vasco de Gama was an explorer, but don’t know what he discovered), the idea of teaching for tests just goes against my grain.
But that is the norm here in the higher high school grades. My third child is in 12th grade, and all he is doing is studying for the test. Taking courses just for the sake of expanding his knowledge? Forget it. It’s not that he isn’t learning anything, but it all seems a bit too utilitarian, not exactly that old ideal about learning for learning’s sake.
AND IF I can’t understand or appreciate the bagrut stage, the next educational phase has me even more at wits’ end. No, I’m not talking about college, but rather that interim phase: the psychometric test – the college admissions exams, Israel’s equivalent to America’s SATs.
In this country, the psychometric test really is another stage all its own. You have preschool, elementary school, middle school, high school, the psychometric, and college.
I know all about this now because I currently have not one, but two children studying for the psychometric exam: The Lad, a year and some change out of the army; and The Lass, a couple months out of her national service.
And it’s not like they are studying for the psychometric while doing something else; working, for instance. What they are doing is studying for the psychometric – exclusively.
“What are you doing?” my father asked The Lass on a visit last month.
“Studying for the psychometric,” she said. “You know, the Israeli SATs.”
“That’s lovely, dear,” he said. “What else?” Here I intervened, wanting to provide some cross-cultural translation so my father wouldn’t think his granddaughter a deadbeat, and so my daughter wouldn’t start having self-doubts.
“There is nothing else,” I said. “This is just the way it is here. The kids take three or four months off, sign up for a preparatory class, and cram for this test. It’s not like the way we used to do it.”
The way we used to do it in the States was much simpler... and cheaper. In the 11th grade, you would buy an SAT preparatory workbook and, in your spare time, go over vocabulary words or brush up on how to divide fractions. Those with money and higher ambitions took the Stanley Kaplan course, but the rest of us just went in with our battery of sharpened No. 2 pencils and minimal pre-test preparation, and took the test.
No more, or at least not here. The single-mindedness with which kids approach these tests can actually be an intriguing concept. For example, when people ask me now what my kids are doing, I respond simply: “Studying vocabulary words.”
Well, not only vocabulary words, both Hebrew and English, but also algebra and geometry. And when I really want to dazzle those asking about my kids’ current vocation, I say they are taking some time off to “polish up on their story problem skills.”
The whole experience has actually had a rather refining influence on our home ambiance. Wanting to help them remember the thousands of highfalutin English words they need to master, I have their word list at my ready and try to incorporate those words into our everyday conversation.
If I ask The Lad a question and he replies with the much overused “sababa [cool],” I correct him and say, “Not ‘sababa,’ son, but ‘stupendous.’” And if I want The Lass to clear the table, I don’t just bark at her to remove the dishes; rather, I say, “It would dissipate my gloom, and add to my overall tranquility and mental equilibrium, if you would convey our eating receptacles to the wash basin.”
It’s breathtaking how well this is working. The other day – just as I was looking over the day’s words – one kid, annoyed, turned to the other and said, “Our direct progenitor is a zany fathead.”
Are we ready for this test, or what?