Learning from the Finland Experience: Part I

When I served as a high school principal, I was frequently asked by faculty members why standardized testing was necessary for our students when students in Finland did not participate in the same kind and frequency of testing and ranked among the highest in international standings. The question seems simple on the surface, but is actually quite complex.

To build a context for thinking about the question of standardized testing differences in Finland and in the United States, I began with a review the evolution of Finland’s current educational system. It is clear that Finland’s educational journey has been a complicated process characterized by deliberate practice that continues today:  development of a problem of practice, research review, implementation of an intervention, review of the data, reflection, and adjust intervention(s). Repeat, repeat and repeat again for decades.

Here is a brief historical view timeline of Finland’s process toward continuous improvement through educational reform:

1963     The government used the concept of improved public education to attempt to improve economic conditions in Finland.

1970s    The government developed a 700 page national curriculum that created a system of compliance with teachers requiring students to take notes on their lessons. Significant gaps were identified in the educational outcomes of students identified as having low socioeconomic status. Additionally, Finland focused on quality teacher education by subsidizing masters degrees in education for its teacher who came from the top 10% of undergraduate programs.

1980s     Policy development and implementation moved to a model of local control and the practice of homogenous grouping ended. Changes in curriculum significantly reduced the gaps demonstrated by students of low socioeconomic status.

1990s    Accountability measures moved from government oversight to teacher and principal oversight including curriculum guides that served as a basic understanding for all Finnish teachers. These guides were only a few pages for the continuum of grades. A teacher remarked, “We have our own motivation to succeed; our incentives come from inside.” An influx of immigrants from a variety of third world and war wracked countries created an increase in low income housing and a change in the demographics of many schools and communities (Hancock, 2011). Achievement and equity continued to increase with these new additions to the Finnish educational system (Darling-Hammond, 2010). Finally, during this decade a focus was placed on innovation, problem solving, and building student capacity.

2000    Results began to demonstrate that the changes in Finland’s educational system were making a significant difference as demonstrated by scoring third on a global assessment, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in approximately 40 countries.

2006     Outcome differences between schools in Finland on the PISA science assessment were within a five percent range. These consistencies extended to overall academic achievement variances, being significantly less than other countries, even with the influx of immigrants to Finland.

Finland has taken the opposite approach to the United States in its response to educational reform. It has moved from a government run system relying on standardized testing as the source for educational decisions to a system that is primarily characterized by local control,  equitable government funding, a workforce of teachers who are well-educated through government subsidies, and a set of national standards that are fluid and flexible.

Here in the United States, we have done the exact opposite and created a more inequitable system of education. To answer the original question posed by faculty members about why standardized testing is necessary for our students, Finland’s history tells a story of more than the elimination of standardized tests. Finland’s approach to educational reform demonstrates that they were in it for the long haul and were prepared to engage in second order change. The question posed by the faculty members regarding the elimination of standardized testing represents what is the problem with the misguided reforms undertaken in the American educational system: we are only willing to engage in first order change (the resistance to eliminate standardized tests being one example). The answer, too, is not to fire educators and start over (Darling-Hammond, 2012).  Rather, until we as educators, parents, school boards, communities, and policy makers are willing to consider second order change, we will continue to be stagnant in improving our educational system in the United States.

Footnote:  Part II will address the social changes in Finland that positively impacted the educational system.

Commentary by Nan Parsons

Nan Parsons is UVEI's Associate Director for School Leadership and a member of the Program Faculty.  For other commentaries by Nan Parsons, see: