Israeli schoolkids get top marks in OECD report

Israeli teenagers are world-beaters when it comes to motivation and competitiveness.  These are just two of the findings of the recently published PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) report: Students’ Well-Being; a global survey of over half million 15-year-olds which was carried out by the OECD in 2015.

This is part of the same survey which last year published test scores in science and mathematics showing Israel with below-average OECD scores, languishing in the lower half of the world league table of developed countries.

But in measures of ‘achievement motivation’ Israeli teenagers knocked the spots off their international peers, with 77% strongly agreeing with the statement ‘I want to get the top grades in all my courses’.  Compare this with students in Japan (27%) and Singapore (45%) – the two top scoring countries in the mathematics and science tests. And the statement ‘I want to be the best whatever I do’ having 61% of Israeli students strongly agreeing, placing them at the top of the league table, with the next three places among OECD countries taken by the United States (58%), United Kingdom (53%), and Turkey (51%)(!), with the OECD average at a meager 29% – curiously the three lowest places went to Finland (11%), Canada (12%) and Switzerland (12%).

Hordes of Israeli students agreed, or strongly agreed, to all the survey statements relating to motivation – whether they were identifying themselves as ambitious, or wanting to be the top of their class.

Our super-confident teenagers are also unfazed when facing classroom stress. The latest published data show that our teenagers suffer less schoolwork-related anxiety than almost any other OECD countries. Responding to the statement. ‘Even if I am well prepared for a test I feel very anxious’ Israeli students had some of the lowest anxiety levels in the world (with 12% strongly agreeing, and 32% agreeing – compared with the percentages from the UK (25% and 47%, respectively), US (24% and 44%), Japan (23% and 39%), and Singapore (30% and 46%).

Perhaps there is a trade-off here. Countries with high achievement levels in science and math tests (Singapore and Japan) have highly anxious students.  But the US certainly bucks that trend, with mediocre science and math test scores. And the UK was also none too impressive, with a below average math score and a bit above average science result.

So, what are we to make of the findings in this latest report? Particularly as we were so downcast with the results published late last year that showed dismal math and science scores for Israeli youngsters.  Perhaps some cause for celebration?  But did you doubt that our youngsters were a cocky lot, with over 90% of them wanting to be top of the class (just how many can be top?).  And no surprises that they all want top grades – and, with the absurd grade inflation in Israel, they get them –  undeservedly.

Then there is the whole debate about whether this sort of data has any validity whatsoever.  When you give anyone a questionnaire, you have to be very wary that they are not merely giving you the answers that they think you want – and anonymity does not correlate with honesty or objectivity.

But surely, at least the test scores are objective.  There is nothing to quibble about here. The students either get the answers right or wrong. For students to fare well in a test they need to be well prepared for that particular test.  As teachers tune in to the PISA-style test they will modify their teaching to meet the test needs.  If our teachers are smart and follow that path, then our students’ test results will climb. And what does that prove?  Perhaps we need to be challenging some fundamentals here and deciding, independent of global pressures, what we really want our kids to learn.  And perhaps being bold and happy is more important than anything else they might learn in their years of schooling.

About the Author
Susan Goodman, a graduate in physics from the University of Oxford and recent recipient of a doctorate in education, combines her passion for science and education in her work at the Hebrew University - as a teacher (in EFL) and science writer. She made aliyah in 2004 and now lives in Jerusalem.
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