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What the Pisa rankings actually tell us about Swedish schools

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What the Pisa rankings actually tell us about Swedish schools
The Local asked experts to pick Sweden's performance in the latest Pisa rankings apart. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT
15:11 CET+01:00
The Local asked the experts what we can take from the improving performance of Swedish schools in international rankings.

1. The good news

According to the experts, the most noteworthy thing to emerge from today’s rankings is that Sweden has reversed a negative trend in its schools that had been ongoing for over a decade and culminated in a below OECD-average performance in the Pisa rankings four years ago. 

“The one thing that really stands out is that a negative trend in Swedish results has been broken. They had been declining since we started measuring in 2000, but now we’ve seen robust improvements. The results are still not as good as they were 15 years ago, but they’re getting better,” OECD analyst for education and skills Tue Halgreen told The Local.

“They’re clearly a substantial improvement, certainly on 2012, though we’re not back to where we were around 2000,” Stockholm University’s mathematics and science education professor Paul Andrews agreed.

“There’s an increase of 16 points in mathematics, a 17 point increase in language, and nine point increase in science. So Sweden is now occupying an average position internationally. That’s a big improvement,” he emphasized.

2. The bad news

The latest rankings did not come without cause for concern however. The gap between the highest and lowest performing students has increased and is now above the OECD average, and the gap between socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged students has also increased. That’s a worry, Stockholm University’s Professor Andrews pointed out:

“The overall average performance has risen, but the achievement gap across the Swedish population has grown. In the past, Sweden managed to maintain a fairly small achievement gap, so it’s some concern."

“One obvious cause is a higher proportion of second language learners in Sweden compared to other countries, to do with the Swedish tradition of humanitarian responses to world crises. That’s not an issue solved overnight, and it should dissipate over the coming years, but in the short term money needs to be invested to support second language learners,” he expanded.

The OECD’s Halgreen doesn’t think that immigration tells the full story about the growing divide in Swedish education however:

“The share of immigrant students is growing obviously and we do see a performance gap, but if we compare Sweden with other countries we can’t say that it’s Sweden’s share of immigrant students in the school system compared to others which explains why some schools are doing better or worse. We’re still talking about a minor proportion of students, even in Sweden."

“It’s also about the home background students have. We see that for students with less resources at home in terms of parents who help with their homework, the gap between them and other students is increasing. In many of the highest performing countries they don’t just have good results overall, but also fairly equitable school systems,” he observed.

3. Neighbours do better

The latest ranking shows that Sweden lags behind some of its nearest neighbours in several categories. Its 493 points in science were less than Norway (498), Denmark (502) and Finland (531). In reading, Sweden’s 500 points were less than Norway (513) and Finland (526), and in mathematics too, 494 points for the Swedes were less than Norway (502), and Denmark and Finland (511 points).

Halgreen feels that Sweden could learn much from Finland in particular.

“If you compare Sweden with Denmark and Norway there are some differences, but the real difference is with Finland,” he explained.

“What does Finland do that others don’t? One thing that stands out is that they’re able to recruit the best into teaching. It’s very attractive to become a teacher there compared to many other countries, including the Nordics.”

“They also target their resources at schools and students who are struggling, as opposed to Sweden, where if we ask principals whether they lack resources, we see that the scools in less advantaged areas are more likely to say they don’t have resources than those in richer areas,” he added.

“In Finland, we just don’t see that gap. They’re simply better at distributing their resources to schools that need them."

4. Are Sweden's strengths overlooked?

Stockholm University’s Andrews thinks that one of the biggest strengths of Sweden's education system, its focus on innovation, is not being taken into account, and could even be a source of shaky performances in the Pisa ranking.

“The Swedish curriculum places a greater emphasis on students taking responsibility for their own learning, that’s part of what it is to be Swedish and the Swedish democratic tradition, which is really important and something to be cherished,” he said.

“Students are more aware than their peers in other countries of when things matter to them individually and when they don’t. They have been turned into reflective human beings who make informed decisions about their own actions. The World Economic Forum publishes its global competitiveness index every year: one component is creativity and innovation, and Sweden is up there in the top two or three. Entrepreneurship is an integrated part of upper secondary school now. I don’t think Pisa tells us anything that’s remotely useful in that regard.”

The OECD’s Halgreen disagreed however, arguing that Pisa testing also takes into account practical uses of skills.

“We do measure the extent to which students can make informed choices based on their knowledge and competence within different subjects. The tasks are very much focused not only on knowledge, but whether you can use what you know in different real life contexts,” he said.

“And when we look at Swedish results in science for example, we included different types of tasks. Some focused more on understanding how science works, then others are based on learning specifically about a topic. We actually see Swedish students doing better on the content knowledge tasks than the practical application, so I’m not sure. It looks like if we had more of the content knowledge tasks Sweden might actually do even better. I’m not sure I buy that one.”

5. Does Pisa even matter?

The high media coverage of today’s results in Sweden – not to mention comments made by the country’s education minister Gustav Fridolin to The Local earlier this year – shows just how seriously Sweden takes the ranking and performing well in it, but should that be the case?

Stockholm University’s Andrews doesn’t think so, and believes resources could be better used.

“The success of Pisa is entirely down to the OECD being very good at marketing what it does,” he argued.

“For one of the world’s most democratic countries to have its curriculum dictated in some sense by an unelected body sitting in Paris is a futile, expensive activity, and the money could be better used elsewhere, like for example supporting second language learners of Swedish. Many kids coming to Sweden are not uneducated or stupid, they know a lot of stuff, but their Swedish is insufficient.”

The OECD’s Halgreen countered however that comparing education systems internationally is an important tool in helping countries to improve standards.

“It’s important to measure learning outcomes in a global context, you shouldn’t just follow developments in the Swedish result, but also look at what other school systems can do,” he insisted.

“That’s perhaps equally important, that Sweden can see what other systems are doing better. An important lesson from other school systems that policy makers should note is that it’s not a trade-off between wanting to be at the top and focusing on giving everyone the same opportunities for example. It’s actually the countries who focus most on the latter who tend to top the rankings,” he concluded.

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