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International Tests Spark Questions on Finland's Standing

Educational tourism has become a sizable industry for Finland in recent years, thanks to its strong showing on a global exam for 15-year-olds. But new data from a different set of assessments suggest that Americans might not need to travel so far to learn about building a strong education system.

The most striking contrast is in mathematics, where the performance of Finnish 8th graders was not statistically different from the U.S. average on the 2011 TIMSS, or Trends in Mathematics and Science Study, released last month. Finland, which last participated in TIMSS in 1999, actually trailed four U.S. states that took part as "benchmarking education systems" on TIMSS this time: Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Indiana.

(For the big picture, check out the EdWeek stories on the new results from TIMSS, which tests 4th and 8th graders, and PIRLS, or the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, focused on 4th graders around the world.)

Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, argues that the new results call for some rethinking of what he calls the "Finnish miracle story."

"If Finland were a state taking the 8th grade NAEP, it would probably score in the middle of the pack," he said, referring to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. "Finland's exaggerated reputation is based on its performance on PISA, an assessment that matches up well with its way of teaching math," said Mr. Loveless, which he described as "applying math to solve 'real world' problems."

He added, "In contrast, TIMSS tries to assess how well students have learned the curriculum taught in schools."

Asked about Finland's performance, Jack Buckley, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, said "I've always been a little puzzled by" the high level of attention trained on the Nordic nation of some 5.4 million people. "Finland captured the world's attention for a variety of reasons, but as these results show," he said, "there are other places to look for case studies."

And those places include some of the American states that posted strong scores on the new global exams.

"It's not necessary to travel halfway around the world to see this," Buckley said, even as he cautioned that there is still plenty of room for improvement, even among high-performing states like Massachusetts.

Finland's score of 514 on TIMSS for 8th grade math was not statistically different from the U.S. average of 509, the data show. Massachusetts, meanwhile, posted a score of 561, placing the Bay State below just four nations in the TIMSS rankings. (The TIMSS scale runs from 0 to 1,000, with 500 being the average of participating nations.)

Finland trailed South Korea, the top performer on TIMSS in 8th grade math, by nearly 100 points.

"That's a full standard deviation. That is massive," Loveless said. "On PISA, they're only five points apart."

He was referring to the performance of Finland's 15-year-olds in 2009 on the Program for International Student Assessment, which also is scored on a scale from 0 to 1,000. Finland ranked in the top tier among all 34 member countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Its score of 541 was not statistically different from South Korea's 546, the highest of OECD members. (Hong Kong, Singapore, and Shanghai, China, did post higher scores.)

Finland did make a stronger showing on the science portion of TIMSS than in math. At the 8th grade, for instance, it scored 552, well above the U.S. average of 525. But that figure was still shy of the 567 posted by Massachusetts.

In 4th grade reading, Finland was in the top tier of nations and above the U.S. average. But its score on PIRLS was about the same as that of Florida, the only U.S. state to participate as a benchmarking education system in that exam. (Basically, that means the state voluntarily agreed to have a large enough sample of students participate so that its performance could be compared with the nations tested.)

Applying Knowledge

I reached out to Pasi Sahlberg, the director general of the Center for International Mobility at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, in Helsinki, to get his perspective on Finland's TIMSS results. (Sahlberg wrote an EdWeek Commentary last January providing some insights into what he believes makes its education system strong.)

"This is indeed the first time Finland took part in TIMSS since 1999," he wrote in an email, saying that overall he believes Finland "did very well."

With specific regard to math, he said: "I was not really surprised. ... Finnish math curricula put strong emphasis on problem-solving and applying mathematical knowledge rather than mastery of content. PISA measures the former, TIMSS the latter."

He added, "I think many U.S. states did very well on TIMSS this time. But we must dig deeper in TIMSS data before we can say much more than this."

Finland not only tested its 8th graders on TIMSS. It also tested 7th graders, the same grade tested in 1999. And what's striking here is that the nation's 7th graders have actually seen a significant decline on TIMSS math since that time, from 520 to 482. (In essence, it dropped from being above to below the global average of participating countries.)

Sahlberg again pointed to the issue of the Finnish approach to math as helping to explain the drop.

"This is mostly due to a gradual shift of focus in teaching from content mastery towards problem-solving and use of mathematical knowledge," he said.

Stepping back, Sahlberg offered a few closing thoughts. First, he seems to sympathize with those who may be feeling a bit of Finland fatigue, given how much attention the country has drawn based on its PISA results.

"It is understandable that some people think that there has been enough of Finland already in education," he said. "I think, however, that we should not draw too rapidly conclusions from one measurement. Regardless of TIMSS 2011, Finland is one of the few education systems that have shown steady progress in student learning, equity, attainment, and efficiency in education during recent history. Just a month ago, international education giant Pearson ranked Finland the best education system in the world in its new composite index that combined several aspects of education system performance." (That assessment, however, did not factor in the latest TIMSS data, which came out later.)

In the end, Sahlberg said, "I also think that education reformers should look at several high performers in education rather than looking for a silver bullet from one country, whatever it is."

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