Analysis of Scholastic Achievement Disparities between the Arab and Jewish Sectors: The PISA Tests, 2000 to 2009

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The PISA test is an international exam that addresses students’ knowledge in three areas: their mother tongue, mathematics, and science. Research led by Dr. Nabil Khattab, head of IDI's Arab-Jewish Relations project, reveals that there are large gaps in scholastic achievement between the Jewish and Arab sectors. The research team found that the level of parents’ education, their type of occupation, and student involvement in extracurricular activities explain these disparities.

There are disparities between the achievement of Jewish and Arab students in the Israeli education system. The present study deals with these gaps and aims to describe them and examine the factors that lead to the inequality. It discusses the effect of the following variables on the academic achievements of Jewish and Arab pupils: socioeconomic status, parental pressure and cultural capital, the school and teachers, school resources, and extracurricular learning.

In order to obtain an accurate picture of student achievement, we analyzed the results of PISA tests in 2002, 2006, and 2009. Administered in many countries around the world, the PISA test examines students' knowledge of mathematics, science, and reading comprehension. As part of the study, questionnaires are also administered to students and principals, in order to obtain data on the backgrounds of students, their attitudes toward their academic environment, and data about their schools as pedagogical institutions.

In 2009, the PISA exam was administered to 4,284 pupils from the Jewish sector and 1,193 from the Arab sector. For the purposes of intercultural comparison, we divided the students into deciles based on their test results. Following this, we created various indices from the questionnaires, which classified measurements that reflect the study variables. We then examined the impact of these variables on the level of academic achievement of students in both sectors.

  • From 2002 to 2009, there was a 33-point improvement in the scores within the Jewish sector, but only a 14-point improvement in scores in the Arab sector. As a result, the gap in reading comprehension between the Jewish and Arab sectors has grown to 100 points, equivalent to one standard deviation. The Jewish sector's reading score in 2009 actually surpassed the OECD average, which is 493 points.

  • The gap between Jews and Arabs in command of their mother tongue decreased somewhat among weaker students. From the third decile up, the gap between Jews and Arabs ranges from 92 to 101 points. In the first decile, however, the gap is only 59 points, while in the second it is 73 points.

  • The study revealed a significant gap in language skills both between girls and boys and between Arabs and Jews. The advantage of the girls over the boys is greater in the Arab sector than in the Jewish sector. Note that the scores of both Jewish girls and Jewish boys exceeded the combined mean for the test in all participating countries, whereas those of the Arab students were well below average.
  • From 2002 to 2009, scores rose by 21 points in the Jewish sector and by 23 points in the Arab sector. In 2009, the gap between the two sectors was 100 points, or one standard deviation, in favor of the Jewish sector. At the same time, however, the Jewish sector's score in mathematics was below the OECD average, which is 496 points.
  • The gap between Jews and Arabs in the higher deciles of achievement has grown. Whereas the gap between Jews and Arabs in the lowest decile is now 50 points (half a standard deviation), in the top decile, the gap between the two groups is 99 points (one standard deviation).
  • The study revealed a gap in achievement in mathematics both between girls and boys and between Jews and Arabs. In the Jewish sector, as in most countries that administer the PISA exam, the scores of boys are higher than those of girls. The Arab sector, however, is an exception to this rule, as no significant gap was found between the scores of the sexes; in fact, girls even had a slight advantage (three points) over the boys. Note that the scores of both Jewish and Arab boys and girls were found to be below the combined average score of the participating countries.
  • There was a 32-point improvement in the scores recorded in the Jewish sector between 2002 and 2009, and an improvement of only eight points in the Arab sector. As a result, the gap between Jewish and Arab students increased from 70 points in 2002 to 94 points in 2009. Despite their relative advantage, however, Jewish students scored lower in the sciences than the average for OECD countries (501 points). In the Jewish sector, there was a consistent rise in scores on the PISA test in science; however, in the Arab sector, a 29-point increase in the period from 2002 to 2006 was followed by a 21-point decrease in the period from 2006 to 2009.

  • An analysis of the results shows that the gap between Jews and Arabs in achievement in science has grown in the upper deciles. Whereas in the lowest decile, the gap between Jews and Arabs is now 36 points, in the highest decile, the gap is 87 points.

  • The study revealed a gap between Arabs and Jews in science. In the Arab sector, the scores of the girls were significantly higher than those of the boys. In the Jewish sector, on the other hand, there was no significant gap between the scores of the girls and the boys (the boys had a slight advantage of four points).

The following factors were found to influence the gaps in scholastic achievement between the Jewish and Arab students:

  • Level of parental education and occupation
  • The family's socio-cultural status
  • Reading habits: Reading of content that is not directly associated with school (e.g., fiction, other books, and newspapers)

In the Arab sector, several factors were found to contribute to narrowing the gaps between the two sectors:

  • Extracurricular studies
  • Challenging instruction by school teachers
  • Classroom discipline

  • Extracurricular programs offered by the schools themselves

Read the full article (Hebrew)