Israel has the largest gaps in student achievement of all the OECD countries, an international student assessment published Tuesday by the Education Ministry revealed.

An especially worrying disparity was found between Jewish and Arab students, the latter scoring 133 less points in the 2012 PISA tests (Program for International Student Assessment).

Though Israel was placed 34th out of 43 in terms of achievement, it ranked first for grade distribution with 405 points, 54 points ahead of Bulgaria at second place (351 points) and 91 points more than the average distribution in OECD countries (314 points).

The results published by the Education Ministry relate to a particularly significant section of the test − computer-based problem solving, which is significant because it attests to abilities and skills that are not learned in school, but are related to basic life skills.

The wide grade distribution between students is reflected in the sizable gaps among students of various socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds: The stronger the background, the higher the achievements. For example, the gap between students from strong backgrounds and those from weak backgrounds is about 100 points for Hebrew speakers and about 36 points for Arabic speakers.

There is also a very large gap of 133 points (about a standard deviation plus one third) in the average grades of students studying in Hebrew-speaking schools as compared to students in Arabic-speaking schools. The achievements of Hebrew speakers in problem solving are only slightly lower than the OECD average (a gap of 17 points).

The exam also indicates that the percentage of students excelling in the test is 9 percent, a percentage not far off the average of 11 percent in the OECD countries. An outstanding student is defined as one with a grade higher than 618 points. The percentage of students defined as having difficulties is almost 40 percent. By comparison, the average percentage of students with difficulties in the OECD is 21 percent.

The announcement by the Education Ministry included a comment to the effect that “This situation, where there is a relatively high percentage of outstanding students, leads to a situation where in Israel, as opposed to most of the countries tested in this area, the ranking according to the percentage of outstanding students does not match the ranking according to average grade. Ranking Israel according to the percentage of outstanding students would put it in a place similar to that of countries such as Ireland, Sweden and Denmark (around 20th place out of 43), which have an average grade of over 490 points.”

The study emphasized problem solving in situations from everyday life, which requires at most a very basic level of knowledge about a specific subject or a specific field of knowledge. Examples include operating a remote control device with many buttons, or operating personal digital devices (such as mobile phones) that come with an explanation in an unfamiliar language.

Originally published in Ha’aretz