Home » Uncategorized » A Reply to Mariam (part 2) – A look at the infamous Finland, a place with no tests

A Reply to Mariam (part 2) – A look at the infamous Finland, a place with no tests

Here’s my response to the second part of Mariam’s comment. You can find part 1 here.

2) I completely agree with everything you had to say about standardized testing, and I thoroughly disagree with Rhee’s ‘objectivity’ business. Ever since high school, I have been in favor for shifting the emphasis from standardized tests to holistic assessments that tell far more about the student as an individual. However, I hear from many that standardized testing is convenient, and that’s why it will stay. I was wondering how you would respond to those who cite convenience as the reason standardized testing will prevail because I honestly don’t know how to respond to that… I mean, to be completely honest, it’s true. Standardized testing is too convenient and can allow any school administration to compare students with each other, rank them, and use that data to admit students into college/graduate programs. How would admission committees use student work portfolios to compare students ‘objectively’ (ugh there’s that word again)? It’s far easier or convenient to cut off students because they don’t meet a certain GPA or test score, but once standardized testing is out of the equation, how do these institutions select which students should be admitted since the portfolios will be unique to the student and comparing a unique portfolio of one student to another’s would be like comparing apples with oranges?

Hey again Mariam!

I answered most of your questions in my reply to Byron, but I did some more research since then and I’d like to add more to my answer than just referring you to my reply to a previous comment.

As you already know from hearing me talk about it for years now, if it were up to me, there would be no standardized testing. Schools would teach students how to learn, rather than how to take tests. No one would be reduced to numbers and ranked. They would be fully educated, prepared to ace a test if they had to, but never programmed to do so. Teachers would be respected as professionals and would have freedom to do what they’re meant to do: teach creatively and passionately.

This isn’t an out-of-reach dream. It’s happening in other countries. Here’s a great example:


And here’s an excerpt from the article I linked:

There are no mandated standardized tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school. There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions. Finland’s schools are publicly funded. The people in the government agencies running them, from national officials to local authorities, are educators, not business people, military leaders or career politicians.

From the article, there’s a lot of evidence that proves this model works. Lots of positive teacher and student testimony, lots of observation from third parties of very creative classroom lessons that engaging students and helping them learn, lots of evidence of collaboration rather than competition that fosters strong, tight-knit learning communities. Teachers in Finland are guided by the philosophy that they know more about their students than a test score does, and I absolutely commend their efforts.

But this isn’t the first thing most Americans look at. No, Americans are really hung up on is how in the heck Finland’s students can outscore almost every country on the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment), an exam that tests reading, math, and science literacy in 15-year-olds worldwide. Results on the PISA are hardly a fully accurate indication of the state of education in a country, but test-crazed American educational leaders are putting a lot of weight on these results.

What is Finland’s reaction to all this? Frankly, they don’t give two damns.

“We are not much interested in PISA. It’s not what we are about.”
— Pasi Sahlberg, Finland’s Ministry of Education

“Americans like all these bars and graphs and colored charts.”
–Kari Louhivuori, Principal of Kirkkojarvi Comprehensive School

I guess it is a little baffling to see a country that doesn’t care much for standardized tests, perform so well on them. That’s because they focus on the more important things, like creating creative and captivating lessons, and they know that their students can demonstrate learning better through the work they produce than through the scores they get. Students then acquire skills that are unlimited by what’s on a test. Their education system is definitely something to envy.

Along with the interactive and engaging classrooms, educators and Finland citizens alike understand that poverty and economic inequity plays a large factor in student performance. That’s why “all political parties on the right and left” strongly stress equality and bravely confront the issue of poverty. They support and provide comprehensive social services for students, such as adequate counseling, medical care, free student health care, and even a taxi service. All of this makes a pretty good package, in my opinion. And they did it all without scores.

Now, I can definitely see how difficult it is going to be to revolutionize America’s education system and build a model that’s similar to Finland. You said that it’s unlikely that standardized tests will be eliminated because testing is so convenient. I agree. Testing is very convenient. But more than that, I think that it will be difficult to eliminate testing because we’re so addicted to it. It’s like what Louhivoiri said. We like bars and graphs and colored charts. We like quantifiable data. We like rankings and competition and comparisons. Testing and data have infiltrated every level of our education system, now from kindergarten (yes, there are now tests for kindergarteners) to post-secondary. The minute kids begin their educational careers, they are now statistics and will have numbers attached to them as they move through the system.

But I’m saying that it’s possible. It’s possible to eliminate high-stakes testing and significantly reduce the time we spend to test our students. It will take work, it will take a lot of fighting on the part of parents, students, and educators, but it is possible. We can shake the addiction to the “objective”, where honestly, it’s not really needed. We can stop ridiculously comparing students and schools, and instead work on fostering individual growth through holistic evaluation.

But even if we eliminate standardized tests for grades K-12, shift to well-rounded curricula and portfolio-based evaluations, revitalize our education system, shake the addiction to rankings and charts, and focus on developing each individual student and supporting their individual growth (which is a pretty damn good investment and definitely possible), we still have the issue of what to do when students apply to college. Because you’re right. Unlike the K-12 system, which should provide equal opportunity for all, colleges have admission requirements and rates.

Admittedly, I haven’t thought about this in depth to settle on a solution that I would wholeheartedly endorse. But after doing a little more research, I have a few ideas that might work.

Before I begin I want to stress again that I don’t think college should be treated as the main goal and destination of education, as it is so often treated right now. I think that many other options for students should be made available, viable, and acceptable. This whole “college-bound” attitude is dangerous and excludes many students who might not fit in to the picture of higher education (or who can’t afford it because holy crap what is happening to tuition and student loan rates?!). But there will still be students who want to pursue higher ed, so here’s a way we can still eliminate high-stakes testing at the K-12 level, implement holistic evaluation, and improve the college admissions process all at the same time.

In my reply to Byron, I came up with a way to increase the speed and precision of evaluating student portfolios if they were to be used in the college admissions process (side note: I mostly think of portfolios being used in the context of learning tools and teacher evaluations, not so much college admissions). But then I came to a dilemma when I realized the real problem was comparing two portfolios, which would be, as you suggest, like “comparing apples with oranges”.

So, I’d like to go back to my thought that perhaps we should devote time to developing a very meaningful and useful exam that can potentially be used as the “objective” component of college admissions. To maybe get an idea of how this might work, I decided to check out universities in Finland and look at their admission criteria.

In Finland, college admissions are based mostly on an entrance exam. Some weight is given to high school grades, extracurriculars, and the interview (only for those going into Education), but most weight is on the college-created entrance exam. There are no recommendations, personal statements, Finnish universities have internal autonomy, and so their exams vary. But typically the entrance exam entails open-ended questions and student-produced responses where students write essays, solve problems, and demonstrate their critical reasoning skills. There is no multiple choice.

This might be a good alternative to the SAT, which is not a very good exam anyway. Instead of a nationwide exam used for college admissions, colleges could fashion their own exams that they feel will determine who is best fit to attend their institution. And unlike Finland, American colleges can still consider high school grades, community involvement, personal statements, work portfolios, recommendations, and interviews. Colleges should really only care about how students fare against other students in their applicant pool when making a decision, so why doesn’t every applicant take an assessment created by the college?

But then again this might not be feasible in the US. Finland is a fairly small country with far fewer colleges that America. It’s easier for students of Finland to take an exam for a college on the other side of the country. Representatives from the college would simply set up test centers in other regions of Finland and offer the test on a certain date. With the number of colleges we have, that doesn’t work so well for us. That would actually be complete chaos. (If you have an idea on how this might work… let me know, I think this would be a very good solution).

So perhaps a nationwide exam is necessary for college admission. Personally, I think colleges can make decisions using the current criteria they use now, minus the SAT test score. Some colleges aren’t even looking at SAT scores anymore. But if we really need the aspect of objectivity, perhaps we can work on that developing that one meaningful and useful exam.

Just out of curiosity, I took a look at Finland’s one exam that students are mandated to take throughout their entire education careers. It’s a matriculation exam that is administered at the end of their secondary education, sort of like a high school graduation exam. It’s a very well-constructed exam, in my opinion. You can check it out for yourself. Exams require all student produced responses, come in different levels for students to choose, and provide a variety of subjects beyond the “common core” (native language and math) that students can choose to take. They are required to take at least 4 exams, with the only mandatory one being Finnish (or Swedish if that is their “mother tongue”). The other three exams can be chosen from the following 4 exams:

  • Second Language exam (if they speak Finnish, Swedish, or Saami besides their “mother tongue”)
  • Foreign Language exam (sounds very similar to an AP Foreign Language exam in the US)
  • Mathematics (student-produced responses only)
  • General Studies exams (choose at least one from “Evangelical Lutheran religion, Orthodox religion, ethics, philosophy, psychology, history, social studies, physics, chemistry, biology, geography and health education”)

Exams are graded twice, first by teachers and then a national board. Scores are on a scale of 1-7, with the only failing mark being a 1. Failing scores can be compensated with other passing scores and tests may be retaken.

This sounds way better than the SAT to me. The only problem I have with this exam is that it has a lot of weight put on it. I’m against the use of high school exit exams, because the stakes are high and using a score as a condition of graduation can hold back a diploma from people who actually deserve one. Perhaps these people aren’t the best test takers or they learn and express learning in less of a “paper and pencil” way, but they still worked so hard in school and learned a lot of material that can’t be encompassed in a test score. I think completing coursework and building robust portfolios are a good enough graduation requirements.

Thus, I think this kind of exam might be more useful as one of the factors of college admissions. And perhaps educators from American colleges can come together and collaborate and the development of such an exam (rather than a testing corporation).

I’m honestly just throwing ideas out there. Please feel free to comment further and offer your opinions on how we can approach fair and equitable college admissions. Your questions have really challenged me to think deeper and in more detail about these issues, and I’m really thankful for this opportunity to sort through some logistics. Because ideas can be great but they aren’t worth much if they aren’t feasible.

Thank you so much again for your wonderful comment, Mariam! I hope my answer has been enlightening!

Here is the last portion of Mariam’s comment. It wasn’t a question but simply her response to the part of my post on poverty. She says some very wise words that I’d just like to share with y’all:

Overall, I love everything you have written in this post especially the way you describe the effect of socioeconomic factors on public school education. “The achievement gap is simply a euphemism for the wealth gap.” YES. This is entirely accurate. Not only can one’s socioeconomic status affect a student’s performance in school, but it also contributes to the ‘unequal’ public schools of our country. Some public schools are perceived to be ‘better’ than others. No surprise there when public schools are funded by property taxes. Some communities do not have the resources, and their schools naturally reflect that. (This is where race and class intersect too, and we are left with inner-city schools where the student bodies’ makeup is predominantly African American & Hispanic… courtesy of redlining)

If anyone has any questions, comments, or concerns, don’t hesitate to let me know! I’m still in the process of learning as well! Thanks 🙂


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