Reading & Literacy

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

January 08, 2013 3 min read
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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

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