Test question raises concerns among Jews

An Ohio Graduation Test question asking for the Arabs’ perspective on the founding of the state of Israel has raised concerns among members of the Jewish community. Objections range from bias to over-simplification of history.

Tenth-graders in public and private schools across Ohio took the OGT March 12 to 16 in five subject areas. Makeup testing took place the following week.

A two-point question on the OGT’s social studies assessment upset many Jewish students, according to Joyce Garver Keller, executive director of Ohio Jewish Communities lobbying group based in Columbus.

“I would suggest there are some students traumatized by the question,” Garver Keller said. “I have received emails and calls from all over the state.”

According to Garver Keller, the OGT question was: “After the Holocaust, many Jews felt that they needed a state of their own in order to provide security for the Jewish people. In 1948, the state of Israel was formed. Many Arabs disagreed with this action. Identify two perspectives of many Arabs that explain their objection to the establishment of Israel.”

“The biased nature of this question misleads students to assume that there is a direct correlation between the Holocaust and the negative attitudes regarding the formation and recognition of the state of Israel,” Garver Keller said. “It is also misrepresentative of Ohio’s current academic content standards approved in 2002.”

Garver Keller took her concerns, along with hundreds of pages of emails and communications she had received about the question, to her March 30 meeting with Stan Heffner, superintendent of public instruction at the Ohio Department of Education.

“The question will not be given again,” Garver Keller said after her meeting with Heffner and staff members Jim Wright, director of curriculum and assessment, and Jim Herrholtz, associate superintendent of the division of learning.

“The question from the OGT has been compromised and will not be used again,” Heffner concurred. “I also suggested that (Garver Keller) apply to serve on our fairness and sensitivity committee if she would like to have a voice in making sure that no test item favors or disfavors any particular group.”

The fairness and sensitivity committee’s purpose is to review and evaluate OGT questions and related test materials to ensure that test questions are fair and unbiased for all groups of Ohio students, according to the Ohio Department of Education.

“We make sure we’re as diverse as possible in the review process,” said ODE spokesman Patrick Galloway. On the committee are parents, public and private school teachers, college academics, school administrators, and representatives of nonprofit organizations.

“We are happy to work with ODE to provide training for ODE staff and whoever works on these issues to address concerns of anti-Semitism,” Garver Keller said.

Two questions

Garver Keller detailed her objections to the OGT question.

“Instead of asking two separate questions, one about the consequences of the Holocaust and one about the establishment of Israel and the attitudes of various cultures toward that establishment, the OGT question combines these two separate events together,” she said. “Both questions are problematic and together create an even larger issue.”

“The establishment of Israel was not a direct consequence of the Holocaust, as the OGT question implies,” she said. “Rather it was an independent process that was impacted by the events of the Holocaust.

“This question oversimplifies a complex history,” Garver Keller added. “In addition, the idea that Israel was only created because of sympathy for Jews after the Holocaust is used by Holocaust deniers to delegitimize Israel’s existence.”

The second part of the question regarding the perspectives of many Arabs “creates the perception that their objections are legitimate and therefore Israel does not have a right to exist,” Garver Keller said. “Unfortunately, this appears to be a biased question, or at the least, a misrepresentation of a very complex issue.”

Local reaction

Locally, Hebrew Academy of Cleveland education director Rabbi Simcha Dessler and Fuchs Mizrachi School head of school Rabbi Barry Kislowicz voiced their concerns about the question.

“The text of the question is both biased and offensive,” Dessler said. “If the objective of the question’s inclusion is to be thought-provoking, the issue should have been presented fairly and accurately. Sadly, students would now be forced to choose between sharing their honest opinion and responding to what the biased questioner would like to hear. We want students to be true to themselves.”

“You have to be careful about the topics you bring up and the ramifications,” Kislowicz said. The question on Israel is a “hot-button political issue.” The question could be upsetting to Jewish students and could affect the way they respond, he said. “It makes the test more challenging when you’re dealing with this highly emotional material.”

“Jews have been there (Israel) since time immemorial,” said Herbert Hochhauser, retired head of the Kent State University Jewish studies program and retired director of the Ohio Council on Holocaust Education. Hochhauser, who has long advocated for Holocaust education and established teacher workshops on the subject, said, “A question like that is slanted. There are two sides to the story.”

Problem is ‘context’

Offering a different view, Beachwood High School principal Robert Hardis said the problem was not fairness, but context. “The idea of portraying one side of a political or historical conflict is not unusual on a test question,” he said. Rather, the problem was that the question summarized thousands of years of history in two or three sentences. “It was not an unfair question, but the context was set up poorly within the question.”

Anti-Defamation League regional director Nina Sundell expressed similar views.

“The only reason it gives for establishing Israel is to establish a Jewish homeland after the Holocaust, she said. “The question doesn’t touch on the historic and Jewish connection to the land.

“We wouldn’t protest that the question asks for an Arab perspective,” Sundell said. “However the question is incomplete. We would suggest that they rephrase the question.”

In addition to objecting to the OGT question, Garver Keller raised concern about one of the curriculum standards in ninth-grade history regarding the Holocaust and its impact. The benchmark refers to the “5.6 to 5.9 million deaths of Jews in Europe in the Holocaust,” while the total number of deaths from World War II is rounded off to 55 million.

“This comes close to Holocaust denial – questioning that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust,” Garver Keller said. “When written in this format, it is strange and inconsistent. Unfortunately, the way this is written might provide an opportunity for students to question the numbers, which is one of the tools Holocaust deniers use to say that Jews have exaggerated the numbers.”

Past disputes

OJC and ADL have disputed state test questions and standards in the past. In 2004, the two organizations raised concerns about a question being field-tested: “Why did the establishment of Israel lead to conflict?” The answer was “It resulted in the displacement of many inhabitants of Palestine.” The question was disqualified after public release.

Complaints by OJC and ADL led to the rewriting of a state social studies curriculum standard in 2002. The groups protested language in the draft standard that asked high-school students to examine social and political struggles resulting from colonialism, imperialism and the Cold War. The establishment of the state of Israel was one of three examples of colonialism students were to address, along with colonial rule and independence in Africa and India, and dictatorships in Latin America.