‘We’ve gone back 20 years’: Reading proficiency in Israel down markedly after COVID

Fourth-graders suffer one of the worst drops in performance among OECD states in new international assessment of literacy levels

An illustrative photo of a classroom in Modiin on January 30, 2022. (Flash90)
An illustrative photo of a classroom in Modiin on January 30, 2022. (Flash90)

Reading proficiency among fourth-graders in Israel has fallen markedly since the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an Education Ministry report released Tuesday.

The findings were based on the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), an international assessment of reading standards in countries around the globe that is meant to be conducted every five years. The previous study was conducted in 2016, while the most recent results from Israel were gathered in 2022.

While Israel fared slightly better overall than the rest of the countries included in PIRLS, the Education Ministry noted that “in relative terms” reading levels had backtracked to a level similar to 2001’s.

“We’ve gone back 20 years,” the ministry said in the report.

The decline in Israeli scores was among the biggest drops recorded in the OECD, tied for second-worst with Norway and ahead only of Slovenia.

“The drop in reading achievement is a common pattern in many countries, but Israel stands out in a bad light,” the report said.

The report found the fall was more pronounced among students with “strong reading” skills, but still notable among those the Education Ministry considers “weaker.”

It also said the decline was significant among Hebrew speakers. There was no marked change in test scores among Arabic speakers since 2016, which the Education Ministry said “remained low.”

Noting the repeated lockdowns and reliance on remote learning during the pandemic, the ministry said it was “reasonable to assume the coronavirus had a significant influence on the results,” but stressed it was not possible to determine from PIRLS when specifically the changes occurred and if there was indeed a causal relationship.

Responding to the findings, the ministry said it would “examine them in depth” and swiftly draw up a plan to improve literacy at various grade levels.

“The statistics testify to the crisis that the education system is in,” Education Ministry Yoav Kisch said in a statement. “Our mission is to get the system back on track, with an emphasis on outstanding students and helping the grades that were especially hurt by the coronavirus. We have a big challenge ahead of us.”

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