Changing Israel’s test scores

The money that could be saved by abolishing the modular system could then be devoted to raising teachers’ salaries, while at the same time ensuring a higher quality of teaching.

Students 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
Students 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
Israel’s dismal results in the Meitzav (“Teaching the future,” The Jerusalem Post, October 18) simply confirm what we already know from our dismal results in the international PISA exams (Program for International Student Assessment), detailed in the McKinsey report (2006/2007).
The prime minister was aware of this report and indeed used its recommendations (alas, not implemented!) as part of his last election platform.
Change is, of course, a long-term project. However, there is one change which can dramatically improve the quality of our educational system, and instead of costing money, it can save funds which are badly needed to improve the quality of teacher training.
Diagnosis: The tail wags the dog – the matriculation exam, or bagrut, system is what fuels everything else that is done in the classroom.
The system of modular matriculation exams and indiscriminate access to “moadei bet,” repeat exams, are ruining the quality of education. The simple reason is that the purpose of this system is to ensure that more students obtain a bagrut certificate not by improving the quality of education, but by watering down the syllabus. Ironically, the effort to get more students to pass the exams by making things easier has backfired: not only are more students not getting a certificate, but often the certificate that they do get is not worth much (witness our results in the PISA exams.) The effect of the modular system on students and the quality of education:
1. A student entering high school in ninth grade is immediately faced with the bagrut system. Teachers, being human and practical, have no option but to “teach for the test.” The result is that students are being taught how to pass exams, rather than being challenged to think, explore, compare, read critically, write clearly, express themselves creatively, etc. Teachers have to cover the material the students will be tested on, rather than communicate a love of their subject and the excitement of learning. The system also results in hours of deadly boredom, giving rise to the frustration and cynicism of our youngsters, who deserve better, and who react with disrespect, bad behavior and even violence.
2. When children begin taking bagrut exams in the 10th, 11th, or even the 9th grade they are not mature enough to appreciate the material with the depth that the subjects deserve. This means that the initial modules – which qualify as bagrut level – are of necessity simplified to accommodate the age and scholastic level of the students.
3. The fact that the students study a subject in modular sections in order to pass exams means that they seldom arrive at an in-depth understanding and overview of the subject. One module is “done” and forgotten, and then it’s on to the next section. The students are never tested in a way that requires them to make connections between the various modules.
4. Students are not required to pass all the modules in order to get a bagrut certificate for the particular subject, because the grade is calculated as an average of the modules. So, for example, a student can do well on the earlier, easier modules, fail the final module – the one that actually tests their knowledge of the subject – and still get a passing grade. At the pre-academic centers, for example (where I was the inspector for English studies), teachers complained that students coming in with high marks on a three-point Education Ministry- approved bagrut in English could not read.
“The medium is the message” – and the message that students are getting is that the education system will make things as easy as possible and not make too many demands of them.
5. Students who fail or even do badly on a module are encouraged to take a moed bet. This promotes an attitude where students fail to fully exert themselves, because they know that there is always another chance. The time lapse between modules is, however, too short for any real learning to be effective – the most that the student can do is brush up on test techniques.
6. The effect on the educational budget. Each module costs a fortune to prepare, print, distribute, administer, mark, check for discrepancies and cheating, as well as issuing of permits for students with learning difficulties and providing them with CDs.
Each additional test date costs another fortune. Of course there should be provision for students who cannot take the original exam due to illness, accident, or family crisis, but at present the system is used indiscriminately. For example, a student who gets 95 on a bagrut can and often will take a moed bet to try for 100, as the higher mark will be the one that counts and there is thus no penalty for trying again.
The money that would be saved by administering exams only in the 12th grade (as was done in the past and is still done in many advanced countries) would be considerable. In terms of quality of education, this would ensure that the exam would be on a mature and all-encompassing level. Students in grades nine, 10 and 11 would have time to explore the subject in depth, rather than merely study for exams with innumerable tests throughout the year (when do teachers have time to teach?) However, the problem cannot be solved simply on one level. The sad fact is that it is easier for teachers to teach for a test than to have real knowledge of their own subject and of teaching methods which encourage children to think for themselves.
The money that could be saved by abolishing the modular system could then be devoted to raising teachers’ salaries, while at the same time ensuring a higher quality of teaching by being more selective when accepting teachers for teacher training colleges, and providing a higher level of teacher education (i.e., finally implementing the suggestions of the McKinsey report.)
The writer has worked in a range of senior positions in Israeli education over the past 39 years and now watches this system’s deterioration with growing anxiety. From 2000 to 2011 she was director of English Studies for the Aguda l’Kidum Hachinuch, which administered 45 pre-academic centers throughout the country.