Leaked ‘gifted’ kids test offers a glimpse into Israeli ‘tiger parent’ culture

Leaked ‘gifted’ kids test offers a glimpse into Israeli ‘tiger parent’ culture

In Israel, one of the few countries that tests nearly all elementary school children for giftedness, some parents are not leaving their child’s score exclusively to their child

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative photo of schoolchildren taking an exam. (Shutterstock)
Illustrative photo of schoolchildren taking an exam. (Shutterstock)

Over the last several years, the Education Ministry has been plagued by a series of “leaks” of national exams that find their way onto the internet. Last year, the problem grew so severe that the Education Ministry put out a tender calling for high-security facilities and armed guards, among other measures, to preserve the integrity of the country’s baccalaureate exams.

Until recently, however, most of these leaks have happened at the high school or post-high school level, where the outcome of a particularly momentous exam can affect the course of the test-taker’s career. But two weeks ago, on October 23, parents of second- and third-graders all over Israel received a letter from the Education Ministry informing them that a national exam that identifies “gifted” pupils had been leaked.

“Dear Parents,” read the letter, “the test for identifying gifted children has been leaked to the public and therefore the test scheduled for this Thursday has been canceled.” The rescheduled test took place on Monday, November 5.

After the leak, there was much speculation in parents’ WhatsApp groups as to who might leak such a test and what their motivation could be. Could there be corruption within the Education Ministry’s gifted program? Are there parents of 7-year-olds so desperate to give their children a leg up they are willing to pay money on the black market for pilfered tests?

A spokeswoman for the Education Ministry told The Times of Israel that “we are looking into this. We believe the test was leaked by someone in one of the schools we sent it to and from there it started to spread on social media.”

She added, “We canceled the test because it is unacceptable to us that some children might achieve high marks in a way that is not legitimate.”

Asked what sort of the parents might coach their children to cheat on such a test, the spokeswoman replied, “There are many types of parents in Israel. Some believe in humanistic education, others believe in democratic or Waldorf education, and then there are the parents who believe in educating for excellence. These parents really want their kids to get a spot in one of the enrichment programs for gifted children.”

Illustrative: Israeli schoolchildren, August 27, 2013. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90/File)

Every year, second-graders in Israel (in some cases third-graders, depending on the municipality) take a test to determine whether they qualify for the Education Ministry’s programs for gifted pupils. The top 30 percent of scorers on the national test are given the opportunity to take a second test.

About 1.5-3 percent of children in each grade ultimately pass both tests and are accepted into gifted programs, which usually consist of a day a week spent in a special classroom or the opportunity to choose from a plethora of enriching after-school activities subsidized by the Education Ministry that are open only to children who meet the “gifted” criteria.

Such programs can include courses in such subjects as electronics, robotics, debate, Chinese language and ancient cultures.

Israel is one of the only countries that screens nearly all children in the school system for giftedness, Menachem Nadler, head of the division for Gifted and Outstanding Children at the Education Ministry, recently told the Makor Rishon newspaper.

On the one hand, studies show that universal screening enables an education system to better identify gifted children from underprivileged backgrounds. On the other hand, “the significance of this is that second-graders throughout the country will take the first test they’ve ever taken in their lives, and the absolute majority of them will fail, thus earning the permanent label of ‘not gifted,’” remarked journalist Rakefet Gross in Makor Rishon.

Noam Gruber, an economist with the National Economic Council in the Prime Minister’s Office and himself the father of a second-grader who was supposed to take the test on October 25, said that overall he thinks that gifted programs are a positive thing because they challenge and cultivate the minds of children who might otherwise be bored in school.

“Being gifted is a special need,” he said. “If those students are bored, they could go in the opposite direction.”

“As a parent, if my child were to be accepted into a gifted program, I would be happy, as long as he was happy,” said Gruber, who researches issues related to educational achievement.

Noam Gruber (courtesy of the Shoresh Institute)

“But I have faith in my child’s abilities no matter what, and while it would be nice to be in such a program, it’s not going to make a cardinal difference to his future success.”

Gruber said that the notion that some parents would be so desperate for their kids be considered gifted that they might try to obtain a leaked test qualifies as “extreme” behavior.

But the motivations, he says, are understandable.

“Ego could play into it: It gives you a sense of accomplishment if your child is identified as intelligent. There’s also the peer effect. The moment you put your child in a group with high-achieving children, it’s likely that your child’s abilities will grow as well.”

The gifted test prep industry

In fact, an entire industry has developed around preparing children for the giftedness test. This industry was the subject of a Knesset hearing on November 7, 2017, in the Committee for Children’s Rights.

“We have been aware of this test preparation industry for a while and it’s growing,” the Education Ministry’s Nadler told the Knesset panel in November. “We had a visit of educators from Hong Kong and they have the same problem; some parents are hysterical to get their kids into these gifted programs. We’ve heard about this in other countries as well. There is no research that these preparatory institutes actually help children pass the test, and if they do, then we’ve done a lot of damage because we took someone who is not gifted and placed him in a program with very high cognitive demands.”

The Education Ministry spokeswoman who spoke to The Times of Israel said that the gifted screening tests measure innate ability and that parents should not and need not prepare their children for them.

But Gruber, the economist, begged to differ.

“That’s a myth. Of course you can prepare for these tests. I think there’s a spectrum. I think the kind of child who gets in with the help of one of these courses was probably borderline to begin with and the course pushed him over the threshold. That means the child is probably very smart to begin with and the kind of individual attention and intellectually stimulating environment provided by these classes could definitely bring out his potential.”

On the other hand, said Gruber, in some cases the Education Ministry officials are right and a child who got into the gifted program through intensive parental pressure and intervention might find it uninteresting and drop out.

Gruber said that the “tiger mother” phenomenon in the United States described by Amy Chua, in which parents put enormous pressure on their kids to achieve, is nowhere near as pronounced in Israel simply because there aren’t such vast differences in quality among schools.

“In Israel if a child goes to school in, say, Holon, all the children get more or less the same level of education and resources.”

Nevertheless, parents with means do seek out extra enrichment for their kids.

An August 2017 study by the Knesset’s Center for Information and Research said that the size of the gifted preparation industry could not be determined but that such courses were far more prevalent in central cities like Tel Aviv and Hod Hasharon than in the country’s geographic and social periphery.

Maria Rabinovich, who wrote the study, told the Knesset panel in November 2017 that as a rule, more boys than girls pass the test and children from wealthier towns and cities tend to do better than their poorer peers, but that the Education Ministry corrects for some of these outcomes so that the children accepted into gifted programs are more diverse than they would be if acceptance were purely based on test scores.

Parents of the ‘non-gifted,’ take heart

One contrarian voice at the November 2017 Knesset panel was that of educational psychologist Hanna David, who said that she saw no correlation between the children who were identified as gifted by the Education Ministry in second or third grade and later academic success.

“I know a boy who failed to pass the gifted test three times and he is now 13 and finishing his second year at university in a bio-med program. I have dozens of examples of kids who took the test over and over and failed. One of them is now studying at university and he is 11.”

In a 2013 essay (Hebrew) posted online, David said she recently led a workshop for parents whose children had been identified as gifted and felt the entire experience might give them nothing but false hope.

“I often hear parents say, ‘I was identified as mentally gifted as a child and today I am 40-something. I make a reasonable living as an accountant or deputy manager of a hotel or real estate agent. But what came of the fact that I was identified as gifted? What became of all the promises that I could do and be whatever I wanted, that I had the ability to conquer the world?’”

The Times of Israel asked Noam Gruber whether Israel is even a meritocracy where academic success correlates with success in a future career.

“There is a strong correlation between education and income,” he said. “It’s true that in many parts of Israeli society, intelligence may be less important than connections and a willingness to get one’s hands dirty, but there are also meritocratic parts of the economy, like the high-tech industry. “

For the 97 percent of parents whose kids will not be labeled as gifted, there is reason to take heart. According to David, not being labeled gifted at the age of 7 or 8 may be a blessing in disguise.

“In my experience, children who took the gifted screening test over and over and failed are the ones who learn that hard work, motivation, determination and persistence are the foundation stones of success,” she told Makor Rishon. “They are the ones who are among the most successful people I’ve encountered.”

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