As my colleagues in Finland are already celebrating the last day of school, I can at least say this week was the last full week in our school. The pupils, as well as their teacher, are waiting for the summer vacation to start! For me, the last big challenge was to assess the students’ development based on the past 4 months. To be able to do it accurately, I had to study a completely different assessment system and then apply it in practice. What a project, I must say! Anyway, I made it, the kids made it and everybody is now satisfied. Now, some words about the differences between the Finnish and Swedish assessment systems and then I’m ready to pack up the books and take the kids to a couple of long-awaited field trips!

It wasn’t such a long time ago when I was (once again) studying the latest version of the Finnish national curriculum (2014) for some school assignment. Even though I have ended up working in Sweden, it was a good base. There are many similarities between the Finnish and Swedish curriculums, ironically, even so many similarities that the Finnish one has been criticised for taking bad examples from Sweden (Enkvist 2016). Anyway, what I think is different, is the culture of assessment. A simple comparison between the number of pages about assessment in general showed that in Finland assessment was really being put on the table in 2016 when the curriculum was released. In the Finnish Curriculum, there are 23 pages about “Assessment of learning” whereas in the Swedish Curriculum under the title “Assessment and certificate” there’s half a page of text. Is it about finding assessment important or keeping it simple? Best to take a look into the actual content. What’s different between the systems?

As we mainly focused on the curriculum 2014 during my studies, the importance of assessment is stuck in my head. It should be continuous, comprehensive and clear. Always think about how you justify the assessment. In Finland, the elementary schools can decide whether they use a numeric grading scale (from 4 to 10 where 4 is failed) or a verbal assessment to describe the students’ learning. Also, the grades have specific words to describe them. 7 is for “satisfactory” and 8 is for “good”. Even though many schools in Finland are now increasing the amount of verbal assessment on the certificates, this old scale is still widely used all around Finland and it’s the scale the older generations know, too.

The first big astonishment for me about assessment in the Swedish school system was that teachers don’t give grades in elementary school (this can vary in other cities). Instead, the teacher answers to an assessment argument in each subject: “The student is assessed to achieve the required knowledge in the Xth grade, provided that the development happens at the current rate”. Basically, it asks whether the student has achieved the specific learning goals the Swedish National Curriculum has defined for each subject. As you can see, the sentence became a closed yes/no question when I interpret it the way I did. However, there are three possibilities to choose from when the teacher does the assessment: i hög grad (”highly”), ja (”yes”) and osäkert(this was difficult to translate but it’s something like ”uncertainty”). How do these words describe the development of a student’s learning?

Basically, if the student has done everything that was asked and showed his/her knowledge, the assessment is ja. “Yes, the student achieves the goals”. If the student does more than was required, its i hög grad. My second astonishment was the meaning of osäkert. Can you say ”uncertain” in an assessment? If you choose this option ”uncertain if achieved the goals”, it means that more support needs to be provided for the student after the assessment. It also has to be verbally explained why the student didn’t reach the goal. Why is the word ”uncertainty” if it needs to be clarified anyway?

The third astonishment was that these options don’t match any kind of an assessment scale. What is there between yes and uncertain? Or if there’s yes, where’s no? If a student doesn’t reach the assessment criterion, shouldn’t we be clear about it? ”No” would clearly mean that we must act. We have to define the problem with relevant arguments and find new better ways to support the student’s learning. To me, ”uncertainty” (or “uncertain” or “uncertain if” etc.) means many different options between, even outside of, yes and no. Furthermore, you could also understand it as ”I don’t know how to respond to this assessment argument”, which would make the teacher sound incompetent. What I’m longing for here are the words that describe how the student’s learning is developing. Osäkert doesn’t really help me as a teacher to be specific with the assessment I give or define the best possible support.

Finally, I can understand the pros of the Swedish assessment model for elementary school. Firstly, it doesn’t categorise students as strongly as the Finnish scale has done, for instance, with girls who got 10 in most subjects (”kympin tytöt”). But what about the division between ihg/ja and osäkert? As the point has seemingly been to prevent comparison among students, I can understand why it’s now more difficult with an unclear assessment model. However, I must say comparing and categorising are natural habits for children. They’ll find a way to do it anyway. Therefore, I think it’s very important how we teach them to read and interpret the assessments – not with respect to their peers but regarding one’s own development. Secondly, the assessment should always be encouraging and it should be clear to the student what he/she can do to improve. In the Swedish model the goal is that everyone reaches ja which can be seen as an encouraging goal. Simply do what is expected and you’ll be fine. But what then? I wonder if a student without inner motivation for learning can or even would aspire for i hög grad if ja is considered to be enough. Since there is no clear scale, I wonder how the assessment encourages one to improve after ja and “climb up”. I think it’s one of the most important aims to turn a student’s outer motivation into inner motivation so that he/she would reach for higher goals, step by step.

Anyway, I guess it just takes some time to get used to a new assessment system especially because I haven’t got much of an experience in different assessment models before.

Read more:

Enkvist, I. 2016. Hur tänkte de i Finland? Stockholm: Svenska Dagbladet. Available: https://www.svd.se/hur-tanker-de-i-finland/av/inger-enkvist

Liiten, M. 2016. Ruotsalaisprofessori ihmettelee, miksi Suomen opetussuunnitelma ”matkii huonosti pärjännyttä Ruotsia” – Opetushallitus: Arvostelu ei perustu tosiasioihin. Helsinki: Helsingin Sanomat. Available: https://www.hs.fi/kotimaa/art-2000002917406.html

The Finnish National Agency for Education. 2014. National Core Curriculum for Basic Education 2014. Available: https://www.oph.fi/english/curricula_and_qualifications/basic_education

The Swedish National Agency for Education. 2011. National Curriculum for the compulsory school, pre-school class and the recreation center 2011. (updated version 2016 in Swedish). Available: https://www.skolverket.se/om-skolverket/publikationer/visa-enskild-publikation?_xurl_=http%3A%2F%2Fwww5.skolverket.se%2Fwtpub%2Fws%2Fskolbok%2Fwpubext%2Ftrycksak%2FRecord%3Fk%3D2687

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