In early March, we posted a story on Schools that Make a Difference. Stacey Sullivan, a third-grade teacher at Georgia Elementary Middle School, is one of the participants in this global learning exchange offered though CVEDC. This post is the third and final post in the series of three blogs that we have republished with Stacey’s permission (read part 1 and part 2). This final entry focuses on assessment in the Finnish classroom. All of these stories have highlighted United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by viewing education through a global lens. Goal 4 states: “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”
In Finland assessment plays a central role in education. In a culture with no high-stakes standardized testing until the end of upper secondary school, when students take the matriculation exam, and no grades given until 5thgrade, the role of assessment veers away from teacher accountability and focuses on guiding teaching and learning. This is quite different than the purpose of assessment in the United States where assessment is used to rank students and hold schools and teachers accountable for whether all students have made adequate yearly progress. Failure to do well on standardized testing often has devastating consequences for U.S. schools. In contrast, The National Board of Education in Finland gives tests to samples of students and schools. These tests assess core subjects like math and Finnish. The information gathered is not used for ranking but is shared with schools and municipalities to provide feedback about progress. It is common for underperforming schools to be given additional funds to address problem areas. These assessments are made available for any school to administer as they wish. Therefore, these assessments can be used as a benchmark against the regional and national results.
To say there is no standardized testing in Finnish basic education is not to imply there is a lack of assessment. Formative assessment is encouraged and heavily valued over summative assessment in Finland. Teachers are encouraged also to use a variety of assessment methods. Here, assessment is an on-going part of teaching and learning, in fact, developing student’s self-assessment skills is an objective outlined in the national curriculum for basic education. In Finland, it is believed that teaching students to self-assess is a way for teachers to develop student’s self-knowledge, study skills, involvement in the learning process, and their ability to set meaningful goals for learning. In this way, assessment is part of the core curriculum, not just a by-product of assigning grades. Though formative assessment is also an encouraged practice in the United States, there is a mixed message when we attach a letter or number to a final product. A message that I believe discourages learning for learning’s sake and emphasizes competition or doing just enough to get by. What does earning an A in math really mean anyway?
Teachers in Finland have to provide regular feedback to students about their work using a variety of methods. Communication with parents about their student’s progress is done via two conferences and a final report at the end of the year. Teachers communicate student progress, work skills, and behavior compared to the curriculum’s goals and performance indicators. Finland also has a web interface used by all schools called Wilma. Using Wilma, teachers communicate with families about behavior, grades, and absences. Families can ask their child’s teacher questions, report scheduled absences, and stay up to date on upcoming assignments and assessments. In the United States, standards-based reporting and web-based interfaces are a growing trend. However, like so many things in the U.S. educational system, they are inconsistent across all school districts.
Beyond 4th grade, students in Finland receive numeric grades ranging from a 4, which is failing, to a 10, which would be the equivalent of an A+ in the United States. Students also take the matriculation exam at the end of upper secondary school. The matriculation exam is made up of a minimum of four tests. One test in “mother tongue” and at least three other tests of the student’s choosing. This is the fabulous thing about Finland. Even when it comes to standardized testing, the individual needs, strengths, and passions of a student are taken into consideration. These tests can range from math and psychology to health education and religion. These exams take 6 hours each and are given over multiple days. Some schools mandate that students must stay a minimum of 3 hours and then can leave if the exam is finished. We were told that it is common for students to opt for 6 different tests on the matriculation exam. These exams are really high-school final exams, but can also be used for university entrance. To receive a diploma students must receive sufficient points from the combined tests. In the United States, the SAT’s might be comparable, however, not all students are required to take the SATS which are used for college admission and do not impact high-school graduation. SAT exams are only given in English, history, languages, math, and science.
Even with a lack of standardized testing before the end of high school, no grades in basic education, and an emphasis on play-based education prior to age 7, the Finnish education system is rigorous and their PISA results show that they consistently outperform U.S. schools. So what are the implications for my own teaching, assessment, and feedback practices? There is so much that is outside my realm of influence, and it would not benefit me or my students to get stuck obsessing about that which I cannot change.
First, I am compelled to push for the development and use of standards-based report cards through 4th grade at our school. I think it is essential to remove the focus from A’s and B’s and to allow students to experience the joy of learning without the fear of failing. The learning process requires us to make mistakes, take risks, and persevere in the face of challenge. This takes a safe learning environment where all students are valued and not judged against each other. Our current grading system encourages competition, not cooperation. Second, I am committed to continuing the research I began through my action research at SNHU which has lead me in the direction of aligning my assessment and feedback practices with a growth mindset. Through my inquiry, it became clear that although I was offering direct instruction in a growth mindset, some of my assessment practices were not in line with that philosophy. As part of this work, I will continue to use student goal setting to encourage ownership of learning and refine my feedback so that it is timely, specific, and related to student’s self-selected goals. Third, I want to incorporate many other elements of Finnish education that I was exposed to on my trip, but did not mention here. For example, I have already sought and received approval to add an additional recess to our day in third grade next year. Along these same lines, I used some of my remaining budget money to purchase unit blocks for my classroom. Next year I am going to incorporate “free play” into our schedule once a week. This is something that I only sporadically do now on Friday mornings but is a huge hit with my students. Another takeaway from my visit had to do with how teachers involve students in decision making at the class, school, and community level. This has inspired me to imagine what that looks like at Georgia Elementary. Could it mean just giving my students a chance to change/improve upon how things are run in the classroom, or might it be creating a student council at the elementary level? Whatever it is, a seed has been planted that I will cultivate over the next few months.
Stacey Sullivan teaches third grade at Georgia Elementary Middle School. She blogs at http://sullivangems.blogspot.com/ and you can follow her @sullyteaches.