Finnish Testing

Barack Obama’s team is thought to be torn between two camps on education policy thinking, one led by Linda Darling-Hammond that’s more friendly to teacher’s unions, and another of self-described reformers who are less so. One difference, as explained by Thomas Toch, has to do with testing and Finland specifically comes up:

Darling-Hammond points approvingly to a “growing emphasis” in high-performing countries on “project-based, inquiry-oriented learning” that has led “to an increasing prominence for school-based tasks, which include research projects, science investigations, development of products and reports or presentations about these efforts”–so-called performance tests. The bulk of the article (written with co-author Laura McClosky) describes approvingly locally administered peformance assessment in countries ranging from Finland to Australia, Hong Kong, Sweden, and the UK. […]

But it’s clear that Darling-Hammond is ambivalent about using performance testing to hold educators accountable for student achievment. She notes that the countries she has studied “do not use their examination systems to rank or punish schools or to deny diplomas to students.” Finland, she writes, “has no external standardized tests to rank students or schools.” Instead, she writes approvingly, the testing systems in Finland and other countries are closely linked to efforts to develop teachers’ ability to teach higher-level skills to their students; they are part of the countries’ human capital strategies.

What Finland does, testing-wise, is that the national government draws up lots of tests. Tests of different kinds of subject matter that are appropriate for children of different ages. But it doesn’t require any nationwide assessment testing. Instead, what’s done on a national basis is that there’s a matriculation exam after ninth grade and there’s also non-publicized testing done on a statistical sample basis so that the government can keep track of what’s happening.

So what are all the tests for? Well, the local governments who actually run schools can — and typically do — order tests administered from time to time in order to check up on what’s happening. So while there isn’t a formal system of test-based accountability, in practice something similar is happening. For example, there was a test in Helsinki of Finnish language ability among I think sixth graders last year. The results weren’t publicized, but they were shared with the principals of Helsinki schools. We visited a school that got poor results on this test, and so the principal and his staff responded by drawing up an action plan to turn things around.

This is simultaneously very different from No Child Left Behind’s accountability system and on another level quite similar. The basic idea that the best way to tell how a school is doing is to administer tests, and then when a school does poorly on tests you know things need to be changed, is held in common. What’s very different are the details of implementation. Finland’s system is much less of a “system” — it’s less formal and less systematic. The Finnish government takes for granted that municipalities will want rigorous assessments of their schools’ performances. The US congress assumes that school districts don’t want such assessments and need to be forced to do them. The Finnish government also takes for granted that the staff and administration of a low-performing school will be alarmed by bad test results and start taking action to change things. The US congress assumes that the staff and administration of a low-performing school won’t act unless they’re made to act.

I don’t think one can seriously dispute that the Finnish system is “better” — it’s more cooperative, more responsive, etc. But at the same time, the underlying belief behind NCLB — that low-performing US schools won’t change unless they’re forced to change — strikes me as a factually accurate claim about conditions in the United States. What we do strikes me as a direction in which the Finnish system might evolve if it starts to break down over time, whereas what Finland does strikes me as a direction in which we might evolve after we see substantial structural reform in the minority of school districts that are truly dysfunctional. After all, it’s not as if the United States has had our current testing and accountability system since time immemorial and we’re clinging to it out of reflexive habit. On the contrary, it was put into place out of a sense that many schools and school districts had been persistently unresponsive to data about performance problems.