Standardized tests a foreign concept in Finland

As the United States focuses more on using tests as a means of holding educators and school districts accountable, Finland—which is one of the top performers on international tests—has gone in the opposite direction.

In the U.S., states give annual high-stakes exams that determine whether schools must undergo reforms, in some cases whether students can pass to the next grade level or graduate from high school, and increasingly whether teachers can receive tenure and keep their jobs. Yet the U.S. tends to rank in the middle on international tests. 

In Finland, by contrast, the few tests students take are low stakes, said Finnish educator, Jari Lavonen in a presentation on Thursday in New York. Assessments are used as a tool for professional development and to help teachers gauge student growth, never for accountability.

Yet, despite a lack of practice, when Finnish students do take standardized exams, they tend to excel. The country ranks consistently near the top in math, reading and science in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is a standardized test taken by students in dozens of countries. The Finnish school system has become the envy of less successful nations around the world, including the United States.

Lavonen suggested if the U.S. wants to mimic Finnish success, it should consider adopting the nation’s philosophy on testing. “We need more decision making and assessment at the local level. We need less standardization and national testing,” said Lavonen, a professor of physics and chemistry at the University of Helsinki who was visiting Teachers College, Columbia University with several colleagues. “We need less test-based accountability.” 

(Disclaimer: The Hechinger Report is published by an independent institute based at Teachers College.)

The Finnish government does occasionally test a random sample of a specific grade and subject in order to insure that the country is meeting its education goals,. Lavonen helped design a high school science exam taken by a sample of Finnish students in 2011. The last time high school science had been tested was 2001.

Overall, students answered an average of 58 percent of the questions correctly. While there were some troubling findings, such as a gender gap favoring boys in physics and girls in biology, Lavonen said everyone was generally pleased with the results.

There was an extremely high correlation between a student’s score on the exam and the end-of-semester grade he or she received, which Lavonen said indicates that teachers are grading well. The test also included many questions to measure students’ attitudes about science – how well they’d learned it and how interesting and relevant it was to them.

And while there are no annual standardized tests there are still ways that the school system checks for quality. Progress is monitored at both the local and municipal level in a variety of ways, including assessments throughout the school year. But the design and timing of any exams are left up to the teacher.

Lavonen, for instance, helped create an online tool for science teachers to develop tests and quizzes as they saw fit. Some might never use it, instead relying on informal checks as they interact with students.

It all comes back to what the Finnish visitors described as a “culture of trust,” where teachers are given flexibility and autonomy. 

“Everything they decide themselves; how they teach and what they teach,” Lavonen said. (Finland does have a national curriculum, however, that teachers must work within.) 

Lavonen and his colleagues who all work in teacher preparation at Finnish universities said tailoring assessments to individual students is fairer than administering standardized exams. Having children of all levels in the same classroom, like the majority of schools do in Finland, presents challenges for testing, Lavenon said. But he stressed it was necessary to treat students differently in order to encourage them based on their individual progress. 

Tags: Finland Europe

"You have to think about education incorporating both critical and creative thinking, and these things can and should be nurtured in children starting as young as possible. You then have to find solutions to combine things in a creative way, that is, to include all the important factors affecting a problem together. I also think our view of learning is that you learn all your life and you learn from many different sources, and the individual is the one who has to combine this knowledge and to find solutions. Nurturing innovation is a question of orientation, which is written into our core curriculum because everything comes back to education."

— Finland’s State Secretary Tapio Kosunen via the Huffington Post

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"America is a good example of how data from standardized tests is used to judge individual schools or teachers. But the tests were not designed to judge teachers or schools.They were designed to judge student progress….Judging and blaming and shaming schools is the complete opposite of Finland, where teaching is a dream job."

Pasi Sahlberg, director general of Finland’s Ministry of Education and author of “Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland” 

Tags: Europe Finland

Finland’s teachers union pushes for longer school days

Unhappy with how they stack up to other countries, Finland’s teachers union is actually leading a push to lengthen school days as part of an upcoming national curriculum reform, reports YLE

Right now, Finnish students spend just 22.6 hours a week in school. That’s the lowest number out of all OECD countries. The average is 24.4, while South Korea tops out the list at over 30 hours a week. But not all support tacking on hours to the school week, in part because Finland still consistently ranks among the top academic performers worldwide.

Professor Jouni Välijärvi of the University of Jyväskylä, who coordinates the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in Finland, says that longer days elsewhere is not a good reason to extend school days here.

"Indeed, PISA results show that this number of hours enables excellent results. It should be carefully considered if this would be an efficient method. It would also mean considerable expense," points out Professor Välijärvi.

The long school day of South Korean public school pupils often continues with extra lessons in private schools, while Finnish pupils have more free time. Both rank at the top of the PISA ratings.

In the view of Professor Jouni Välijärvi, instead of longer days in the classroom, Finland should invest in more special education and after-school club activities.

"There seems to be something in the air in other developed countries urging an increase in the systematic education of small children. I am not convinced that this is wise. It could produce exactly the opposite results intended."

Tags: Europe Finland

Finland’s special education record

The percentage of children classified as special education students in Finland nearly tripled between 1995 and 2010, jumping from less than 3 precent to 8.5 percent. Finland’s holds the world record for special education transfers, reports The Helsinki Times

Take nearby Norway, for example. Fewer than 1 percent of students in the country are labeled as having special needs. The same holds true for Iceland, Portugal and Greece. In the 2008-2009 school year, 5 percent of public school students in the United States had special needs, down from 5.8 percent the year before. 

So do today’s children in Finland have more learning disabilities than the previous generation? Or is the country becoming more liberal with its classifications? As The Helsinki Times pieces demonstrates, no one knows:

The chairman of Trade Union of Education in Finland, Olli Luukkainen, says that statistics are a sad indication of the growth in numbers of troubled children and youths. It also shows that these children’s problems have become worse and more varied.

[Professor of special pedagogy Timo Saloviita from the University of Jyväskylä ], on the other hand, believes that it’s not the children who have changed but attitudes towards them: more and more children are classified as different.

"Special needs teaching is a form of segregation that has been turned into a heroic story. In this story the pupil, often a boy, needs rehabilitation, which is done with the help of a variety of necessary special needs teaching methods. The helper is the teacher."

Tags: Europe Finland

Finland’s immigration influx

It’s tempting for people to dimiss Finland’s success on international education assessments with an argument that you can’t compare a small, relatively homogeneous country to the United States. That’s not to say Finland void of all diversity though; a story by YLE, Finland’s national broadcasting company, details how the schools are continuing to be confronted with more immigrants. 

Over a hundred students from Estonia have enrolled in schools in Vantaa, a city near Helsinki, since the spring. “It came as a complete surprise when we started preparing teaching plans during the spring,” the city’s education manager Eero Vaatianen told YLE. “New children are arriving week by week. For example, last week one teacher got six more new Estonian pupils.”

The influx of new students means financial burdens for the schools, which are committed to teaching students in their native language as well as Finnish. 

So far, though, diversity hasn’t slowed down Finland’s success. A piece in September’s Smithsonian magazine profiled Kirkkojarvi Comprehensive School, where over half of the elementary students were immigrants, describing the school’s “preparing classes” taught by experts in multicultural learning:

"It is designed to help children keep up with their subjects while they conquer the language. Kirkkojarvi’s teachers have learned to deal with their unusually large number of immigrant students. The city of Espoo helps them out with an extra 82,000 euros a year in ‘positive discrimination’ funds to pay for things like special resource teachers, counselors and six special needs classes."

Tags: Europe Finland