Too Good To Be True?

A few days ago The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) published the results of three studies for global student achievements conducted in 2011: TIMSS for Mathematics and Science and PIRLS for Reading Literacy.

The results for Israel were surprisingly good:

  • Math: 7th place in the world (up from 24th place)
  • Science: 13th place in the world (up from 25th place)
  • Reading: 18th place in the world (up from 31st place)

When I first heard these results, on the radio while driving, I was very happy. In recent years Israel’s rankings in global educational achievements have been continuously declining. For a culture that take great pride in the efforts and resources it spends on education, and for a country whose economy is dependent mostly on knowledge workers, this decline painted a very dire picture. One cannot overemphasise the importance of education for the future of Israel. So no wonder I was happy. I am not a supporter of the current government but I had to admit they must have done something right to get these results.

But then I thought about it some more. The last TIMSS and PIRLS studies were conducted in 2007. There are no instant solutions for education. It doesn’t take four years for the education system to produce such astounding improvements, no matter what steps are taken to improve the system. Something seemed a little fishy. The leap in achievements looked too good to be true.

Only about 5,000 Israeli students took these international tests. The schools and the students were picked at random, which theoretically should produce a good statistical sample. However, information that surfaced in the past couple of days shows that the schools that were selected were instructed by the Ministry of Education to put special emphasis on the selected students and prepare them for these tests. This apparently did not happen in 2007. These 5,000 students were apparently not representative of the student population.

There’s more. Only a couple of months ago, the Ministry of Education was forced by the courts to make public the results of the nationwide “meitsav” tests (which ALL students in Israel have to take). The results were shockingly low compared to previous years, continuing the well-known downward trend in scholarly achievements.

Taking all this into account, it seems as if the jubilation about the TIMSS and PIRLS results might be a little premature. Time will tell if we are witnessing a true change in the trend. I really hope we are.

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