Minister of Education Anna-Maja Henriksson (SFP) reacted at a news conference concerning the results of the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) in Helsinki on Tuesday, 5 December 2023. Henriksson pointed out that the results show a decline in learning outcomes virtually across the OECD, suggesting that the special circumstances brought about by the coronavirus pandemic are partly to blame. (Antti Aimo-Koivisto – Lehtikuva)

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THE PISA RESULTS of Finnish youth have deteriorated across the three core subjects examined in the international assessment: science, reading and mathematics.

The Ministry of Education and Culture on Tuesday revealed that Finnish 15-year-olds saw their mean score in mathematical literacy – the main focus of the latest assessment – decline by 23 points from 2018 to 484 points, 12 points higher than the mean score of pupils across the OECD.

Finland was hardly an outlier in this regard: the mean score in mathematics declined in as many as 41 countries, including 35 members of the economic organisation. With Japan and South Korea the only OECD countries to register an improvement in mathematical literacy, the mean score across members of the organisation declined by an average of 17 points from 2018 – significantly more than the previously most dramatic assessment-to-assessment change of 4 points.

Pupils in Canada, Estonia, Ireland, Switzerland and the Netherlands all scored higher in mathematical literacy than their peers in Finland.

The deterioration of mathematical proficiency among 15-year-olds has continued in Finland since 2006, when pupils in the country registered an average score of 548 points in mathematics.

The development is evident not only in the mean score, but also in the share of pupils at opposite ends of the performance spectrum: the share of pupils with inadequate mathematical proficiency has jumped from 7 per cent in the early 2000s to 25 per cent in 2022, whereas that of pupils performing excellently has decreased.

In Finland, girls received a mean score of 487 and boys one of 482 points in mathematics in 2022, signalling drops of 24 and 23 points, respectively, from the previous assessment. Girls in the country have outperformed boys in mathematics since 2012.

Reading proficiency has similarly deteriorated in a number of countries assessed in Pisa.

Finnish 15-year-olds saw their mean score in reading fall by 30 points from the previous assessment to 490 points, 14 points higher than the OECD average. As Finnish girls saw their mean score in reading fall by 33 points to 513 and boys by 27 points to 468, what has always been a noticeable gender gap in reading skills narrowed from 52 to 48 points.

Finland remains a better-than-average performer in the economic organisation also in scientific literacy, despite an 11-point drop in the mean score to 511.

The Ministry of Education and Culture characterised the overall situation as “extremely disconcerting” despite the fact that learning outcomes dipped widely across the OECD.

It also pointed out that although the performance of both immigrant and non-immigrant pupils declined in all three core subjects, the decline has been more rapid for non-immigrant pupils in mathematics and science, narrowing the gap between the two pupil groups.

One positive takeaway from the latest results is that pupils exhibited less anxiety about mathematics in Finland than anywhere else in the OECD.

The level of anxiety correlated with pupils’ perceptions about the degree of support they receive from teachers during maths lessons. In Finland, 78 per cent of pupils viewed that teachers have provided additional support when needed and 59 per cent that teachers have demonstrated an interest in fostering the learning of all pupils.

Disciplinary climate, by contrast, was an area where the country performed worse than the OECD average. Finnish pupils were particularly concerned about the use of digital devices, with 41 per cent estimating that digital devices have distracted them during every or most maths lessons.

The Pisa assessment was carried out one year behind schedule due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Minister of Education Anna-Maja Henriksson (SFP) reminded that the pandemic and its effects on instruction, the motivation and well-being of youth inevitably had an impact on the results of the global assessment.

“Finland’s Pisa results have […] continued on a downward trend. What is significant is that skills have eroded substantially, and that’s why the results have to be taken seriously,” she stated at a news conference in Helsinki on Tuesday. “The assessment results don’t provide an exhaustive answer as to how much of the erosion of learning outcomes is due to the pandemic and how much is due to other factors.”

“It seems that the attitudes of pupils have changed mostly in a positive direction, but this isn’t reflected in the level of skills,” she added, pointing to the lack of maths-related anxiety and relatively positive experiences of teaching during the pandemic. “The performance gap between pupils has widened, and the home environment’s effect on learning outcomes has continued to grow. Girls continue to outperform boys, and pupils of immigrant backgrounds have weaker skills than other pupils.”

“Measures are needed.”

The Finnish government is seeking to reverse the downward trend in learning outcomes by investing 200 million euros in basic education by the end of the electoral term, reforming services that support learning, and increasing the amount of maths and native language teaching.

First and second-grade pupils, she reminded, will have two additional weekly hours of literature and native language instruction, and third-to-sixth-grade pupils one additional weekly hour of maths instruction as of 1 August 2025.

The previous government has also decided to make permanent a funding mechanism targeted at schools and kindergartens in socio-economically challenging regions.

“A total of 50 million euros is paid annually to municipalities. The funding is intended for schools and kindergartens that are located in socio-economically challenging areas. This money can be used to balance differences in learning outcomes,” said Henriksson.

Arto K. Ahonen, the research director of Pisa in Finland, described Finnish pupils’ performance in the latest assessment as historically poor.

“If you compare to our neighbouring countries, Estonia, for example, has done a better job to maintain the skills of pupils. Learning outcomes naturally deteriorated in a number of countries because of the coronavirus pandemic. In Finland, the deterioration was more pronounced than we’d hoped for,” he admitted.

A researcher at the University of Jyväskylä, Ahonen viewed that the decline in academic performance cannot be attributed to any single factor.

“Not all of the reasons are necessarily found in schools, but there have been societal changes, too. If you analyse the two latest assessments, meaning years 2018 and 2022, there isn’t a single factor that’d explain the differences in results.”

Finland, he added, does stand out in that learning outcomes have declined at all skill levels – from the worst-performing to the best-performing pupils.

Ahonen also reminded that a decline in learning outcomes in basic education can have far-reaching consequences in the lives of young people and society at large.

“For example, people in upper-secondary education are already concerned that young people don’t have the skills they need to cope with their studies. This follows people to tertiary education and thereon to working life. Primary school is where the foundation is built, it’s where investments are needed.”

Aleksi Teivainen – HT

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