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Finland's Global Standing in Education Takes Hit With Latest PISA Results

Educational tourism to Finland may be on the wane following the recent results from an international assessment in math, reading, and science.

The Nordic nation's scores dropped in all three subjects on PISA, compared with three years prior. Not surprisingly, the nation also slipped in some of the global rankings provided with the new data, issued early this month. (However, as my colleague Liana Heitin points out, be careful about getting too caught up with where each nation ranks, numerically. It's slippery because of the question of what is "statistically significant," not to mention differences in student populations.)

The new data from 2012 assessments also show that 15-year-olds in Massachusetts—one of three U.S. states to have reportable results on the Program for International Student Assessment—scored on par with Finland in both math and reading. (In science, Finland was still ahead by a statistically significant amount on PISA's 0 to 1,000-point scale.)

So, let's do the numbers for Finland:

Math: 519, down from 541 in 2009;

Reading: 524, down from 536 in 2009;

Science: 545, down from 554 in 2009.

All of these changes were statistically significant, according to PISA documents. And in all three subjects, the declines are a continuation of a pattern seen from 2006 to 2009. To be sure, Finland's performance was still superior to that of the United States in all subjects. (For example, the U.S. average in math was 481, compared with Finland's 519.) But the U.S. scores stayed about the same statistically, compared with the 2009 results. And a number of other countries, including Germany and Poland, made gains.

For the first time this year, three U.S. states opted to have publicly reportable scores on PISA: Massachusetts, as well as Connecticut and Florida. While Finland outperformed the latter two in all three subjects, its students only outperformed those in Massachusetts (by a statistically significant margin) in science.

A year ago, I wrote about findings from another global assessment system that also cast Finland's achievement in a different light. The most striking contrast was in math, 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. 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.

So, what to make of the latest PISA results for Finland?

In a piece published this month on a Washington Post blog, Finnish educator and scholar Pasi Sahlberg says the new data are not surprising, because "national student assessment and academic research in Finland have shown that students' knowledge and skills in mathematics have declined since the mid-2000s."

Whatever the reasons for the declines, "Finns must adopt smart responses and avoid hasty, false recoveries," says Sahlberg, a former director general of the Center for International Mobility at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, and currently a visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

For its part, the nation's education ministry said clear action is needed to help Finland reverse course.

"The general downturn in learning outcomes shows that we must take strong action to develop Finnish education," said Krista Kiuru, Finland's minister of education and culture. "I will be setting up a broad-based forum without delay to work on safeguarding the future of the Finnish system of basic education. We will bring in not only experts in research and education and political decision-makers but also student representatives and parents."

Sahlberg cautions about getting carried away by the global data.

"PISA results are too often presented as a simple league table of education systems. But there is much more that the data reveal. The Finnish school system continues to be one of the most equitable among the OECD countries. This means that in Finland, students' learning in schools is less affected by their family backgrounds than in most other countries."

That said, the education ministry notes that even while differences in math literacy are "minimal," it said "this is the first time in Finland that there was a group of schools where the results fell below the OECD average."

"I'm particularly concerned not only about the decrease in the overall level but also about the growing disparities and about the rapid decline in outcomes among low performers," Kiuru said.

It remains to be seen what effect the latest PISA data will have in the United States. Certainly, the results sparked yet another round of declarations from all sides of the political spectrum about what really needs to change to bring up U.S. scores.

But it seems likely that as U.S. policymakers, researchers, and educators look for answers, fewer will likely book flights on Finnair.

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