A report released Tuesday by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that the gap between the abilities of Hebrew-speaking students and their Arabic-speaking peers in Israeli schools is the largest between socioeconomic groups in the 79 countries that participated in a periodic assessment.
The results of the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment tests, known as PISA, showed a significant gap between Hebrew- and Arabic speakers in all three of the educational skills assessed — reading, mathematics, and sciences — and revealed that the divide was even bigger than found in the last such test in 2015.
In each of the three areas tested, the Education Ministry acknowledged, Israel’s overall performance was below the OECD average.
Education Minister Rafi Peretz said in a statement that he had ordered the establishment of a working group to find ways to improve the situation in the Arab education system.
“The results, showing that the gaps increased between students of higher and lower socioeconomic backgrounds, are unacceptable,” he said.
The standards found in the Arab community “require us to conduct a thorough check,” Peretz said.
Peretz said the working group would form a “comprehensive plan in order to bolster the education system in the Arab community with an emphasis on language studies, mathematics, and sciences.”
In the PISA tests, Hebrew speakers scored 506 points in reading skills, the same as the previous assessment. However, Arabic speakers scored just 362 points, a drop of 29 points.
The OECD average is 487 points, with the overall Israeli average at 470 points.
In mathematics, Hebrew speakers remained at 490 points but Arabic speakers scored 379, a drop of 12 points. The OECD average is 489, with Israel’s average at 463, down seven points.
Finally, in the sciences, Hebrew-speaking Israeli students remained at 491 points, while Arabic-speaking students dropped 26 points to 375. The OECD average is 489 points and Israel’s average is 462, down five points since 2015.
Overall, PISA showed a gap of 144 points in reading, 111 points in mathematics, and 116 points for sciences between Hebrew and Arabic speakers.
The results drew criticism from opposition lawmakers.
MK Ahmad Tibi, of the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties, tweeted that the PISA results reflect “a failure by the Education Ministry to include Arab society, which requires drawing conclusions and improvements.”
Opposition Blue and White party leader MK Benny Gantz said in a statement: “We will not accept a situation in which Israel ranks first when it comes to gaps in educational achievement. Israel should be an educational leader.”
“The PISA survey results, which point to a decline on most indexes — and worse, to widening achievement gaps — require all of us to pause, change course, and define a nationwide program to ensure equal educational opportunity for all,” he said.
The PISA tests assess the abilities of 15-year-olds every three years.
The ministry said the working group will examine the Arabic-language syllabus, teaching material and methods, as well as how funding for extra teaching hours in the Arab community has been used. There will be a particular focus on southern Bedouin communities.
Overall, among the 79 countries surveyed, Israel was 37th in reading, 41st in mathematics, and 42nd in sciences.
The National Authority for Assessment and Evaluation in Education, an independent body within the Education Ministry, said the tests were carried out here in March 2018, among a sample of 6,623 9th- and 10th-graders from 174 schools.
Another significant indicator in the results, the NAEE said, was the average number of exceptional Israeli students in all three literacy sections — 3%, which matched the OECD average. However, the number of students who showed difficulties in Israel was 22%, compared to a 13% average in the OECD.
Among Hebrew speakers, 12% of pupils were classified as having difficulty while among the Arab population the figure was 53%.
China topped the PISA results list with scores of 555 in reading, 591 in mathematics, and 590 in sciences.