It has become a national pastime to bash our educational system – often with good reason. In particular this happens when Israel scores disappointingly low marks in comparison to other countries on tests such as the Program for International Assessment (PISA) or the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).But not all is gloom and doom.Data presented this week by the Education Ministry gives reason for a glimmer of optimism. For the second year in a row, the proportion of students earning a high school matriculation (bagrut) certificate has risen. The certificate is earned by students who pass several written (and in some cases, oral) ministry-administered exams, and get a passing mark (55 or higher) in each exam. The certificate is key to pursuing higher education. After eliminating haredim and Arabs from east Jerusalem, two groups who for ideological reasons do not pursue matriculation, 64.6 percent of high school-aged young men and women passed earned a certificate in 2010, up from 61.8% in 2009. Among Arabs, 38.3% matriculated in 2010 compared to 35% in 2009.Before 1980, fewer than 20% of students, including haredim and Arabs from east Jerusalem, earned matriculation certificates. In 2010, 48.3% did so.Moreover, past data indicate that an additional 4% who did not matriculate upon finishing high school will obtain the certificate within six years afterward, making Israel’s levels of matriculation quite high.Thus, despite the tendency by teachers, parents and other naysayers to reminisce about the supposedly high level of learning in the previous generation and gripe about today’s drop in academic demands, to date, no scientific study has confirmed this impression. In fact, not only are more students finishing high school and matriculating, many more are also taking the psychometric examination to be accepted to university. If it were true that high schools were less demanding academically than in the past, there would be a significant drop in average psychometric scores. But in fact, scores have actually risen over the years for both Jews and Arabs. Studies that detect “grade inflation” over the last few decades in high school have not proven that these higher grades are undeserved.And more Israelis are getting advanced education. Central Bureau of Statistics data for 2008, the most updated available, show that for 25- to 34-year-olds the percentage of those with at least 13 years of education was 66% among Jewish Israelis and 30% among Arab Israelis, one of the highest rates in the West.SO HOW do we explain the discrepancy between higher matriculation rates and lower achievements on international tests? According to Nachum Blass of the Taub Center, part of the answer lies in the unique challenges faced by Israel – from absorption of huge waves of immigration; to security threats such as mortar shells and Kassams in the South, and Katyushas in the North, that have over the years paralyzed schools; to the widening gap between the rich and the poor.Also, unlike other countries, Israel has not specifically focused on excelling in the PISA, the TIMSS, or other international evaluations.Additional factors that hurt Israel in international comparisons include the sharp growth in the Arab population, which tends to be less educated and poorer, and the fact that haredim, whose boys do not learn math or science after elementary school, are included in PISA and TIMSS evaluations.More importantly, notes Blass, there are numerous factors that contribute to high school students’ success but cannot be gauged in a conventional pencil-and-paper test. Creativity, the level of trust and interaction between students and teachers, and students’ self-esteem and motivation to learn new things can never be measured in these tests. But these factors definitely have an impact on one’s ability to finish high school and to succeed in higher education.What else can explain the fact that Israel is ranked fifth in the world by the World Economic Index in terms of the number of registered patents per capita? Or that of the 500 best universities in the world, seven are in Israel? Or that Israeli youth regularly meet expectations to volunteer in the IDF’s demanding combat units and in national service? Or that more books and movies in Hebrew are produced in such high quantities per capita? Or that more Israelis attend cultural events and read books than most westerners? Or that proportionately more Israeli students are accepted at foreign universities and excel there? While there is always room for improvement, our educational system has managed to produce men and women of excellence under difficult conditions. Hyper-criticism of our schools, teachers and students runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, while an appreciation of their many achievements is the type of positive thinking that encourages more of the same.Let us continue to improve what needs improving in our schools without losing sight of all that has been accomplished.