Israeli 10th graders still struggling, but dodge global post-COVID drop-off — study

2022 PISA survey shows Israeli 15-year-olds avoided the ‘unprecedented performance drop’ seen worldwide, but are still ranked below international average in academic skills

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

Illustrative photo of Israeli high schoolers taking an exam. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of Israeli high schoolers taking an exam. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Despite a general downturn in academic skills worldwide, Israeli high schoolers have managed to maintain their abilities in math, reading and science, though they still score below international averages, according to a comprehensive study released earlier this month.

High school students around the world have suffered a deep drop in mathematics and reading abilities, according to the 2022 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study, which examined the abilities of some 700,000 15-year-olds in 81 countries.

The study is conducted every few years by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and includes both OECD and non-OECD states.

The latest edition of the study, which covers the years 2018-2022 and was released on December 5, found an “unprecedented performance drop” in which “mean performance in mathematics across OECD countries fell by a record 15 points. Reading fell 10 points, twice the previous record, whereas science performance did not change significantly.”

The study uses a flexible point system to rank skills in math, reading and science. The study aims to test students’ abilities as they pertain to entering the general labor market and not in terms of strict academic advancement.

Israel has participated in the PISA study since 2002.

Average PISA test scores for 15-year-old students in OECD countries, from the 2022 PISA study. (courtesy)

The results for Israeli 15-year-olds in 2022 showed a 4-point increase in reading, from 470 to 474 points, a 3-point increase in science, from 462 to 465, and a 5-point drop in mathematics, from 463 to 458. The study methodology in Israel tested more than 6,000 15-year-olds, most of whom were in 10th grade, out of about 132,500 eligible.

These results show that the Israeli students were scoring “about the same” in 2022 as they were in 2018, but the scores were “less than the OECD average in mathematics and science, and close to the OECD average in reading,” according to the PISA documentation.

Israeli results as compared to the OECD average in reading, math and science on the 2022 PISA exams. (courtesy)

The global results are “terrible,” said Gal Alon, director general of the Education Ministry’s National Authority for Measurement and Evaluation in Education, known by its Hebrew acronym RAMA.

“Worldwide we have seen a dramatic drop, which was the biggest since PISA started. In Israel, we saw a light drop, which enabled us to go up in the rankings. Nevertheless, if you look at the Israeli results, in reading we are near the OECD average, and in math and science we are below the average,” Alon explained.

The PISA results worldwide don’t show progress, it’s a question of “who got hurt less,” he added. “We got better in the rankings because we stayed stable and the whole world collapsed. In my opinion, we should lead. We have a lot to improve. We always strive to do better but [the results] aren’t something we should feel bad about,” he said.

The PISA results showed that the outcomes for Arabic-speaking students were significantly lower than other groups in Israel, results that are “not new” despite “major investment,” Alon said.

He noted that ultra-Orthodox women in 2018 already had the highest reading score in the country, and in the new 2022 survey made significant gains in science and math, “something to be proud of.”

Ultra-Orthodox men did not take part in the PISA study in enough numbers to provide a representative sampling for that population, he said.

The 2018-2022 period covered by the PISA study includes the COVID pandemic lockdowns of 2020-21, and in fact, the study was due to be implemented in 2021 but was delayed because of the pandemic. Nonetheless, the study found that “the decline in performance can only partially be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, with falling scores in reading science and maths already apparent prior to 2018.”

“Analyzing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, around half of the students across the OECD experienced closures for more than three months. But the results show no clear difference in performance trends between education systems with limited school closures… and systems that experienced longer-lasting school closures,” the OECD said in a statement.

A separate 2021 study conducted by RAMA found that in Israel, where the government did implement extensive lockdowns and distance learning during the COVID period, 54 percent of 10th and 11th graders reported that their studies were affected negatively by the pandemic, 46% said they were harmed emotionally, and 31% reported negative social impacts.

The PISA study also tracked the impact of technology on educational performance, finding “that moderate use of digital devices in school is associated with higher performance, but this depends on the technology being used to support rather than distract from learning.”

Students in OECD countries who used their digital devices for leisure for up to an hour a day scored a full 49 points higher in math than students who used their devices for five or more hours a day, the study found.

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