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Major education reform will slash number of high school matriculation exams

Students will be required to pass 4-5 exams instead of 12-14; reform expected to come into effect next year

Tobias (Toby) Siegal is a breaking news editor and contributor to The Times of Israel.

A student in Hartman secondary school in Jerusalem takes a matriculation exam in mathematics in 2010 (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
A student in Hartman secondary school in Jerusalem takes a matriculation exam in mathematics in 2010 (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

The Education Ministry has announced that it will be implementing a major reform in Israel’s matriculation exams, known as bagruyot, reducing the number of final exams students must pass in order to receive their matriculation certificate upon completing high school.

The reform, spearheaded by Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton and a group of 200 teachers, school principals and academics, will dramatically reduce the number of required matriculation exams from 12-14 to only 4-5.

According to the new plan, first reported Sunday by Channel 12 news, students will be required to pass exams in four core subjects — mathematics, English, language and an elective course. Students who are interested will be able to choose a fifth elective course to be tested on.

Other classes like literature, history, Bible and civic studies, which are currently part of the matriculation exams designed and written by the Education Ministry, will be tested and graded internally by each school.

The ministry has noted, however, that the level expected from students in these fields will be much higher, adhering to academic standards.

The idea behind shifting these subjects to an internal testing mechanism “is to create a significant learning process,” instead of “only memorizing and regurgitating the information on a piece of paper,” in order to provide students with a learning experience they will actually remember, Channel 12 reported.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton visits students at the Ramon School in Modi’in, on October 12, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The reform will also introduce required term papers, which will demand of students what the Education Ministry has referred to as “the skills of tomorrow,” such as asking critical questions, analyzing information, speaking in front of an audience and other verbal communication capabilities. Unlike the internal exams, these papers will be examined and graded by external inspectors from the Education Ministry.

The last major aspect of the planned reform will be the introduction of a practical program aimed at preparing 12th-graders for life after high school and after their military service, focusing on financial management and navigating the Israeli and global job markets.

The extensive reform is expected to come into effect as soon as next year.

Former education minister Shai Piron called the reform “an important and necessary step,” and said Shasha-Biton was “brave” for advancing it.

“Seven years have passed since we started a reform aimed at making the learning experience [in Israel] more meaningful. Unfortunately, it came to a halt and never progressed the way I hoped it would. But here, thanks to [Minister Shasha-Biton] and her team — it might be happening,” he wrote on Facebook Monday.

According to Piron, it’s not only testing that is outdated in Israel’s education system.

“We must replace/add/change not only the ways of testing our students. We must add more classes, more disciplines: financial management, debate, health, nutrition, gender studies. We need to teach philosophy and research. We need to dive deeper into questions of identity and belonging. We must not get used to the curriculum. Parts of it are no longer relevant,” he wrote.

“A curriculum consisting of 45-minute classes, seven hours a day, five days a week has no place anymore. We must look at time in a completely different way,” he added.

While many have hailed Shasha-Biton’s reform as a much-needed change in a system that has remained static for years, others have expressed outrage and confusion over its implications.

Ran Erez, who serves as chairman of Israel’s Secondary School Teachers Association, told public broadcaster Kan on Monday that he was shocked to hear that Shasha-Biton was advancing the reform. According to Erez, he was only told about the plans by an Education Ministry official with whom he met on an unrelated issue.

“I understood from her that they tried to hide it from me,” he said, claiming that Shasha-Biton had assured him during a previous meeting that she had no intention of reducing the number of matriculation exams. “I was sick to my stomach when I heard about the plan,” he said.

Ran Erez, chairman of the Secondary School Teachers’ Association, at the National Labor Court, August 27, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Others have charged that canceling external and monitored exams in so many classes will chip away at existing standards and foster a “corner-cutting” attitude.

“Canceling the bagrut in all humanities is an educational error and a bad message… We’ve lost our souls,” said former Education Ministry director general Ronit Tirosh, who headed a committee aimed at changing the outline of the matriculation exams under former education minister Yoav Gallant.

“Students are not writing. It’s a shame to give up on humanities classes,” she added.

Her comments were echoed by an unnamed deputy school principal from central Israel, who told Kan that Shasha-Biton’s reform was “a great plan… for Finland,” arguing that in Israel, the result would be that classes that are not externally tested will slowly lose their significance and allocated hours.

He also argued that universities would not take the reform well. “Anyone who thinks that academia will accept these grades as an indicator over time is deceiving themselves,” he argued, claiming that “the idea of every student in Israel being capable of writing an appropriate research paper is an illusion.”

Matriculation exams, or bagruyot, can have a significant impact on a student’s future. Scores are a major criteria examined in applications to elite military units and Israeli academic institutions. The bagrut certificate is awarded to students who pass the required examinations with a mark of 56% or higher in each.

The bagruyot reform is the latest in a series of systemic changes Shasha-Biton has led since her appointment as education minister in June 2021.

Last month, the Calcalist business daily reported that the minister had announced a plan for giving school principals more financial autonomy. According to the report, each principal will receive a budget of NIS 250,000 and NIS 1 million, based on the school’s size and socioeconomic status, so that they have more freedom to pursue their educational goals.

Israel is considered an exceptionally centralized system when it comes to decision-making processes, leaving school principals virtually powerless to maneuver within the system. According to this plan, expected to begin next year, they will have more flexibility to respond to their students’ specific needs.

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