11/16/2012 12:49 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2013

Standardized Testing A Foreign Concept In Finland With World's Top Students

This piece comes to us courtesy of The Hechinger Report's Lessons From Abroad blog.

As the United States focuses more on using tests as a means of holding educators and school districts accountable, Finland--which is one of the top performers on international tests--has gone in the opposite direction.

In the U.S., states give annual high-stakes exams that determine whether schools must undergo reforms, in some cases whether students can pass to the next grade level or graduate from high school, and increasingly whether teachers can receive tenure and keep their jobs. Yet the U.S. tends to rank in the middle on international tests.

In Finland, by contrast, the few tests students take are low stakes, said Finnish educator, Jari Lavonen in a presentation on Thursday in New York. Assessments are used as a tool for professional development and to help teachers gauge student growth, never for accountability.

Yet, despite a lack of practice, when Finnish students do take standardized exams, they tend to excel. The country ranks consistently near the top in math, reading and science in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is a standardized test taken by students in dozens of countries. The Finnish school system has become the envy of less successful nations around the world, including the United States.

Lavonen suggested if the U.S. wants to mimic Finnish success, it should consider adopting the nation's philosophy on testing. "We need more decision making and assessment at the local level. We need less standardization and national testing," said Lavonen, a professor of physics and chemistry at the University of Helsinki who was visiting Teachers College, Columbia University with several colleagues. "We need less test-based accountability."

(Disclaimer: The Hechinger Report is published by an independent institute based at Teachers College.)

The Finnish government does occasionally test a random sample of a specific grade and subject in order to insure that the country is meeting its education goals,. Lavonen helped design a high school science exam taken by a sample of Finnish students in 2011. The last time high school science had been tested was 2001.

Overall, students answered an average of 58 percent of the questions correctly. While there were some troubling findings, such as a gender gap favoring boys in physics and girls in biology, Lavonen said everyone was generally pleased with the results.

There was an extremely high correlation between a student's score on the exam and the end-of-semester grade he or she received, which Lavonen said indicates that teachers are grading well. The test also included many questions to measure students' attitudes about science - how well they'd learned it and how interesting and relevant it was to them.

And while there are no annual standardized tests there are still ways that the school system checks for quality. Progress is monitored at both the local and municipal level in a variety of ways, including assessments throughout the school year. But the design and timing of any exams are left up to the teacher.

Lavonen, for instance, helped create an online tool for science teachers to develop tests and quizzes as they saw fit. Some might never use it, instead relying on informal checks as they interact with students.

It all comes back to what the Finnish visitors described as a "culture of trust," where teachers are given flexibility and autonomy.

"Everything they decide themselves; how they teach and what they teach," Lavonen said. (Finland does have a national curriculum, however, that teachers must work within.)

Lavonen and his colleagues who all work in teacher preparation at Finnish universities said tailoring assessments to individual students is fairer than administering standardized exams. Having children of all levels in the same classroom, like the majority of schools do in Finland, presents challenges for testing, Lavenon said. But he stressed it was necessary to treat students differently in order to encourage them based on their individual progress.