Why the Arabs' test grades are lower

Were I a fan of conspiracy theories, I would accuse Bill Gates of purposely trying to trip up the Arab test takers.

Salman Masalha || 
Why the Arabs' test grades are lower

The recently published OECD test results once again expose the nakedness of the Israeli education system. The latest tests included a section whose purpose was to evaluate students’ abilities to solve problems that are not part of the school curriculum. As in previous tests, Israel was far behind in the international rankings, and there were enormous score gaps between children from different socioeconomic and national backgrounds.

When the results of the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) examinations for literacy were published, the Education Ministry crowed about the ostensible progress made by Israeli students. But not only was this improvement marginal, the results also pointed to an expanding gap of around 100 points between Arabic speakers and Hebrew speakers.

Officials in the Education Ministry and the National Authority for Measurement and Evaluation in Education tried to sweeten the bitter pill using a trick that left a bad aftertaste. “Had each language sector been ranked separately on the countries list in accordance to its achievements, then the Hebrew-speaking children would have been ranked around 15 (out of 64), while the Arabic-speaking children would have been about 56th.” In other words, the Jews can relax, we stack up well internationally.

The gap between Arabic- and Hebrew-speakers was even greater in “digital reading performance,” that is, reading from a computer screen rather than the printed page, reaching 155 points. Why is that the case? In addition to the usual explanations, attributing the difference to socioeconomic factors, there is another reason. After all, students in the wealthy Gulf states are also at the bottom of the ranking in this area.

I did some checking, and found real problems with the translation of the texts used in the tests into Arabic. Not only were there translation errors, but the language of the translation was complicated, hard to follow and not fluent, and the punctuation, instead of making the text easier to decode, was faulty. Were I a fan of conspiracy theories, I would accuse Bill Gates of purposely trying to trip up the Arab test takers.

There’s another screw-up, one that has to do with the Microsoft Windows operating system, which uses a terrible typeface for Arabic. That definitely has something to do with digital reading, and might explain the size of the gap between Arabic- and Hebrew-speakers.

To begin to understand the severity of the issue, imagine that every Hebrew text on the Internet were to be written in Rashi script – the English equivalent might be Old English, although it is closer to any modern English typeface than Rashi is to modern or biblical Hebrew. Rashi script doesn’t exist in Arabic, but the Windows Arabic typeface is terrible and nearly illegible. The worst problem is that when you add the vowels, which in itself is supposed to ease decoding, the vowel marks obscure the letters and add an additional layer of difficulty. MS Windows is a closed system and there is no way to add proper Arabic typefaces to it, but one could ask Microsoft to replace its Arabic typeface in Windows and threaten the company with a mass move by the world’s Arabs to Apple.

I myself switched to Mac a long time ago.
Published: Opinions-Haaretz, Apr. 4, 2014

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