Reading & Literacy

On Global Exams, U.S. Comes Closer to Finland

January 08, 2013 3 min read

Educational tourism has become something of an 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 Americans might not need to travel so far to learn about building a strong education system.

The most striking contrast is 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, issued last month. Finland, which last took part in TIMSS in 1999, trailed four U.S. states that participated in TIMSS this time as “benchmarking” systems: Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Indiana.

Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, said the new results call for some rethinking of what he calls the “Finnish miracle story.”

“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. He described the Program for International Student Assessment 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.”

Passi Sahlberg

Jack Buckley, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, said, “Finland captured the world’s attention for a variety of reasons, but ... there are other places to look for case studies.”

And that includes some of the U.S. states that posted strong scores on the new global data. “It’s not necessary to travel halfway around the world to see this,” Mr. Buckley said.

Finland’s score of 514 on TIMSS for 8th grade math was not statistically different from the U.S. average of 509. Massachusetts scored 561, placing it below just four nations in the TIMSS rankings. (The TIMSS scale runs from 0 to 1000, with 500 the average of participating nations.)

Finland trailed South Korea, the top performer on TIMSS in 8th grade math, by nearly 100 points. By contrast, the Nordic nation of 5.4 million scored only 5 points below South Korea on the math section of PISA, a difference not considered statistically significant on the PISA scale, which also goes from 0 to 1000. None of the 34 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development outperformed Finland on PISA in 2009.

Finland made a stronger showing in science on TIMSS. It scored 552 in the 8th grade, well above the U.S. average of 525, but still shy of Massachusetts’ 567 score. Finland scored in the top tier for 4th grade readers, based on new data from PIRLS, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study. Its score was above the U.S. average, but about the same as Florida’s, the only U.S. state to participate as a benchmarking system.

Pasi Sahlberg, the director general of the Center for International Mobility at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, in Helsinki, said that overall, he believes Finland “did very well” on TIMSS and PIRLS for 2011.

On math specifically, he wrote in an email: “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.”

Stepping back, he 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.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2013 edition of Education Week as New Global Results Spark Questions on Finland’s Standing

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Culturally Relevant Pedagogy to Advance Educational Equity
Schools are welcoming students back into buildings for full-time in-person instruction in a few short weeks and now is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and systems to build
Content provided by PowerMyLearning
Classroom Technology Webinar Making Big Technology Decisions: Advice for District Leaders, Principals, and Teachers
Educators at all levels make decisions that can have a huge impact on students. That’s especially true when it comes to the use of technology, which was activated like never before to help students learn
Professional Development Webinar Expand Digital Learning by Expanding Teacher Training
This discussion will examine how things have changed and offer guidance on smart, cost-effective ways to expand digital learning efforts and train teachers to maximize the use of new technologies for learning.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Reading & Literacy Spotlight Spotlight on the Science of Reading 2021
In this Spotlight, review where the learning gaps are for those learning to read, determine if teachers are properly prepared and more.
Reading & Literacy What the Research Says Reading on Screen vs. Print: New Analysis Thickens the Plot on Promoting Comprehension
Electronic books could boost young children's comprehension more than print, but few enhance, rather than distract, new study finds
4 min read
Image of someone holding a tablet and a book.
Carolina Jaramillo/iStock/Getty
Reading & Literacy Letter to the Editor The Politics of Reading Is Failing Students
The National Reading Panel's guidance—not instruction—is to blame for students' low reading assessment scores, says a reading tutor.
1 min read
Reading & Literacy Opinion The Pandemic Will Worsen Our Reading Problem. Another Outcome Is Possible
Early learning lays the foundation for literacy. Here’s how to get young students back on track after a disrupted school year.
Emily Freitag
4 min read
Illustration of teachers helping students climb books.
Jess Suttner for Education Week