Assessment in Finland: Steering, Seeing, and Selection

In Finland, the notable lack of tests for accountability purposes receives considerable attention. In fact, when we talk to teachers, administrators, and policymakers here, the question “how do you know how well things are going in your …. (classroom, school, municipality…)?” elicits quizzical stares. It’s a question that doesn’t make much sense when the initial assumption is that things are going well. However, our discussions here over the last three weeks have highlighted a few other interesting aspects of the uses of assessment here.

Assessment for steering not accounting

The word “accountability” has been traced back to ancient “account-giving” and record-keeping practices, tracking how funds have been spent and ensuring those funds have been spent as intended. Correspondingly, in places like the US, tests have been used to hold teachers, school leaders, and schools “accountable” for their actions and to see if they have done what they are supposed to do. But rather than using assessments to look back to see what was done, in many ways, educators and system leaders in Finland use assessment to look forward and to see if people, classes and schools are headed in the right direction. Such an approach doesn’t require data on every single aspect of student, teacher, or school performance, but it does require paying attention to ensure that no one gets too far off course. It means a focus on looking for outliers and listening for signs of trouble, not checking on each individual or making sure everything is done a certain way or in a certain timeline. But such an approach also requires mechanisms (like the curriculum renewal process as we will argue in a later post) to support shared understanding of the goals and expected outcomes of the whole system and a wide range of supports to make sure that everyone can get where they are going. Of course, it also helps if the whole system seems to be moving in the right direction already.

Assessment by walking around

Given the focus on this kind of “steering” approach, questions about the data used to make decisions from an American seem odd. While we have only spoken to a small group of teachers and school leaders here, invariably, those we’ve met have explained that learning whether a class or a school is on the right path can be accomplished by regularly “walking around” (while our Finnish colleagues did not refer to it directly, a similar concept—management by wandering around—has been part of the literature in business for some time). That means getting around the classroom and the school; talking to students, teachers, staff, and parents; listening to needs for support; and being alert to any signs of trouble. Concerns that arise about particular classes, schools, programs, or practices (especially when they come from more than one source) can then trigger “a talk” with those involved and some further investigation. (Even at the national level, a policymaker we talked to said that they don’t need a lot of data to tell them that many Finnish teachers are not using the assessment criteria that are in the core curriculum because regular meetings with teachers make that clear all the time…)

Despite the benefits, however, such a personal approach leaves unspecified the basis for many important decisions. In fact, when we asked teachers how school leaders know what they are doing or how well they are doing, many weren’t sure. Similarly, school leaders often couldn’t tell us how their supervisors (municipal administrators) could determine whether or not they were effective leaders. This lack of clarity may become more problematic as at least some municipalities in Finland have begun piloting some ways of using bonuses and salary increments to reward some teachers. While it is not widely discussed, those we talked to in at least two different groups of schools reported that their school leaders could decide to give them small bonuses if the leader felt that they did a particularly good job with their students or were particularly engaged in professional activities like research or professional development. While teachers could make their own case and often came to mutual agreements, leaders and municipal administrators, not teachers, have the last word.

Assessment for screening, sampling and selection

Even with a focus on assessment “by walking around,” however, educators in Finland do make use of a variety of tests and assessments. In contrast to Norway (where students do not get any written marks and there is comparatively limited testing until 8th grade), teachers in Finnish primary schools regularly use assessments of their own design as well as tests and quizzes from the textbooks; students get a report card at the end of the year; and in some cases, high scoring students may be singled out for recognition and rewards (something that the Norwegians would find shocking). Finnish teachers use an array of diagnostic and screening tests extensively in the early grades in Finland to make sure that no students are falling behind, particularly in reading. For example in one municipality, primary school special education teachers administer a screening test in reading comprehension to all students at the end of 2nd and 4th grade across all schools (and many administer it at the end of every year). That information, however, is not used at the school or municipal level to “check” on who is and isn’t performing well, rather, it’s used to identify those students who will need extra help moving forward.

As many have reported, the National Board of Education in Finland also regularly gives tests to samples of students and schools that are used to look at national and regional performance in key subjects like Finnish and mathematics. While the National Board does not use that information for ranking (and can’t because all students and schools are not assessed), they do share school level information with the schools that participate and municipal level data with the municipalities involved. In addition, the National Board makes these sample assessments widely available for free so that any teacher, school, or municipality that wants to administer these tests can do so. As a consequence, even without national testing, Finnish schools and municipalities have government-paid for tools that are linked directly to the core curriculum that they can use to benchmark their performance against regional and national samples.

Despite this diagnostic emphasis, tests and assessments in Finland do have important consequences, however, even if they are not used to hold teachers and schools accountable directly. In particular, despite the emphasis on equity, in some municipalities, students can express a preference to attend a particular school and a students’ final exams and final grades at the end of basic education (9th grade) can have an influence on whether or not they get into their top choice upper secondary school. Thus, in some of the largest municipalities in particular, students with the highest grade point averages are likely to get into their first choice schools, while students with lower grade point averages may have to opt for less selective schools.

Furthermore, at the end of upper secondary school, students have to pass matriculation exams in several subjects, and their scores on those exams (in combination with the Universities’ own entrance exams) determine whether students can go on to university and which institutions and programs they can get into. In fact, the results of the matriculation exams are made public; and newspapers report on the highest performing students and rank the schools according to their students’ average scores (see “Lukiovertailu – Etelä-Tapiolan lukio Espoosta kärjessä” roughly: “Comparison of High Schools – South Tapiola in Espoo at the forefront of high schools”). In addition, even more information on the performance of vocational schools is made publicly available—including the numbers of graduates and the average time to completion—and that information is used by the government in decisions about funding.

As a consequence of the school choice options available and the selection practices of students, Sonja Kosunen and colleagues have argued that there is a kind of implicit tracking within the Finnish system that may have an impact on the equitable distribution of learning opportunities. (Nonetheless, as Jennifer Von Reis Saari has pointed out, in contrast to most countries like the US and Sweden the Finnish system is highly “permeable,” so that even students who choose a vocational track in high school can still end up studying advanced subjects and can still gain entrance to University programs.)

In the end, what we’ve learned makes it clear that teachers, school leaders, and policymakers in Finland have access to a robust set of assessments that are supported by a long tradition of work on assessment at institutions like the Centre for Educational Assessment at the University of Helsinki, the Centre of Learning Research at the University of Turku, and the Niilo Mäki institute, associated with the University of Jyvaskyla. Furthermore, those assessments are used for a variety of purposes that can have important consequences for students and schools. But at the same time, many teachers, school leaders and policymakers start with the assumptions that things are going (at least relatively) well, that they will know if things start to go off course, and that, if necessary, everyone will work together to get things back on track.

Thomas Hatch

3 responses to “Assessment in Finland: Steering, Seeing, and Selection

  1. It was illuminating for me to read about the assessment practices in Finland. The ‘common knowledge’ that Finnish students only have to take one exam in their lives is certainly challenged in the light of this article.

  2. Chuck Sampson

    Tom-the discrepancy between what accountability looks like in the US in comparison to Finland is fascinating. I think sheepishly of what it would be like as a superintendent if I engaged in management by walking around as the primary means of deciding what was or was not working within our schools and how that might play out in my annual evaluation:)…An entire system that, in some ways, is based on support and the identification of those in need rather than the fostering of an academic culture based on competition, particularly prior to upper-secondary school may actually allow for more meaningful academic experiences for all students. The sharp contrast between the early grade experience in Finland and some of the procedures utilized for selection to upper-secondary schools is surprising, I would be fascinated to see longitudinal data related to those impacts.

  3. Pingback: Educational change in Finland? | International Education News

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