There was a decline in performance for students regardless of whether or not they had an immigrant background.

Students taking a dip into the basin of Havis Amanda in Helsinki on April 30, 2022. Photograph: TONY ÖHBERG/FINLAND TODAY

THE RESULTS OF the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2022 show that the performance of Finnish young people has deteriorated, but remains above the OECD average. PISA 2022 focused on mathematical literacy. The results were revealed on early Tuesday afternoon.

In PISA 2022, Finnish 15-year-olds achieved an average score of 484 points in mathematical literacy, compared with the OECD average of 472 points.

The best-performing country in mathematics was Singapore (575 points), followed by other East Asian countries and economies. Estonia, Switzerland, Canada, the Netherlands and Ireland also outperformed Finland. Finland was among 11 countries whose performance was above the OECD average and was not statistically significantly different between countries. Denmark, Latvia and Sweden were also among these countries.


Smaller achievement gap between immigrant and non-immigrant students

Performance declined for students regardless of whether they had an immigrant background or not. In mathematical literacy, the gap between non-immigrant and first-generation immigrant students narrowed by 11 points compared to the 2012 PISA assessment. This is explained by the fact that the score points of students without a migrant background decreased more than those of students with a migrant background. The average scores of both non-immigrant students and first- and second-generation immigrant students fell in all three areas of assessment – mathematics, reading and scientific literacy—compared to 2012.

Unprecedented PISA round—performance declined in most OECD countries

The number of countries in which learning outcomes declined was exceptional. The average score in mathematical literacy fell in as many as 41 comparable countries or economies, 35 of which are OECD countries. Among OECD countries, student performance improved only in Japan and Korea. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the postponement of PISA by one year and affected participating students throughout their lower secondary education, at least indirectly if not otherwise.

For the first time, many countries also struggled to meet PISA standards for sampling or response rates. This means that either the school-level response rate or the student-level response rate did not meet the standards set for PISA assessments. Such countries have been included in the reports, but are marked with an asterisk (*) in the figures and tables.

Mathematical literacy on the decline

Mathematical literacy in Finland has been on a downward trend since PISA 2006. In the most recent assessment, the average score of Finnish students was 484 points, 64 points lower than in the best year, 2006 (548 points).

This decline in performance is also reflected in the distribution of students across performance levels. In the early 2000s, only 7 percent of Finnish students were at the lowest performance level (below level 2) in mathematics. In the most recent study, one in four students performed at these levels, and the percentage of students performing at the highest level of mathematical literacy (level 5 or 6) decreased over the same period.

Reading and scientific literacy above the OECD average

In reading literacy, Finnish students continued to perform better (490 points) than the OECD average (476 points). In reading literacy, the main domain assessed in PISA 2018, Finland’s average score declined significantly from the previous assessment, by 30 points.

As in mathematical literacy, performance in reading literacy declined in most participating countries. Finnish students’ average score in scientific literacy also remained above the OECD average, at 511 points. As in Finland, young people’s scientific literacy in all OECD countries has declined from the peak levels of 2006 and 2009. However, the decline in Finland was steeper than the OECD average.

Girls outperform boys in mathematical literacy

In PISA’s mathematical literacy assessment, the performance gap between Finnish girls and boys was relatively modest. Boys outperformed girls in 2012, but since then the gender gap has reversed and is now in favor of girls. In the 2022 assessment, the difference in performance between girls (487 points) and boys (482 points) was 5 points. However, the deterioration in performance is evenly distributed between the sexes: compared to the previous round in 2018, the average score in mathematical literacy fell by 24 points for Finnish girls and by 23 points for boys.

Relationship between socioeconomic status and OECD average math performance

Parental education and occupation, as well as family wealth (socio-economic status), were associated with students’ reading literacy in all participating countries. In Finland, students in the highest socioeconomic quarter scored 529 points, 83 points higher than students in the lowest quarter, who scored an average of 446 points (OECD 93 points). The difference increased by 16 points compared to the previous round when mathematical literacy was the main domain of assessment. This increase can be explained by the fact that the performance of students from the lowest socioeconomic status has declined somewhat more than that of students from the highest socioeconomic status.

More positive results in Swedish-speaking schools

Compared to Finnish-speaking schools, Swedish-speaking schools seemed to have better results overall. Over the past decade, the decline in student performance in Swedish-speaking schools has been slower than in Finnish-speaking schools in all areas of assessment. For the first time in mathematical literacy, the difference between Swedish-speaking (499 points) and Finnish-speaking (483 points) schools was statistically significant in favor of Swedish-speaking schools. In mathematical literacy, the proportion of low achievers in Swedish-speaking schools did not increase as much as in Finnish-speaking schools.

And in scientific literacy, not only was the average score in Swedish-speaking schools (526 points) higher than that in Finnish-speaking schools (510 points), but Swedish speakers had increased their score compared to the previous assessment. In reading literacy, the language of instruction made no difference, with the average score for speakers of both languages being 490 points.

Widening differences between schools and students

In Finland, differences between schools have traditionally been small by international standards. PISA 2022 shows that the differences between schools have increased somewhat compared to previous rounds. Disparities between schools outside the Greater Helsinki area have increased between 2012 and 2022, and are now close to the level of variation between schools in the Greater Helsinki area.

 Variation between students (within a school) remained largely stable in Finnish lower secondary schools between 2003 and 2018. Since then, however, the differences have increased and are now larger than in any previous PISA assessment.

Minimal math anxiety

There have been both improvements and deteriorations in students’ attitudes towards learning and attending school. Finnish students had the lowest levels of mathematics anxiety among OECD countries. The more students felt supported by their teacher in math class, the less likely they were to feel anxious about math.

Overall, 78 percent of Finnish students reported that their teachers gave extra help when they needed it (OECD average 70 percent), and 59 percent reported that teachers showed interest in each student’s learning in most lessons (OECD average 63 percent). However, respondents in 2022 felt they received less help from their teachers than respondents in 2012.

Room for improvement in disciplinary climate

The questions measuring disciplinary climate indicated that Finnish students experienced worse classroom discipline than students on average in OECD countries. Based on the disciplinary climate questions repeated between 2022 and 2012, students perceived that classroom discipline had improved somewhat.

For the first time, this round included questions about the extent to which students felt that digital devices were disrupting class. Among Finnish students, 41 percent reported that students’ use of digital resources distracted them in every math class or most math classes. This was significantly higher than the OECD average (31%). However, moderate use of digital devices at school and during leisure time is associated with better learning outcomes.

Resilient education systems

PISA also looked at resilience in schools, in other words, how participating countries managed to maintain or improve the average performance of their students, the performance of students with the lowest socioeconomic status, and students’ sense of belonging. Finland did best in maintaining students’ sense of belonging and satisfaction with life. Looking at these three factors, only four participating countries – Japan, Korea, Finland and Denmark* – scored above the OECD average on all three.

In summary

For Finland, examining the links between declining performance, attitudes to learning and experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic does not provide easy answers or explanations. The pandemic is shown to have particularly affected students who were already facing major challenges.

On the whole, however, Finnish students reported feeling confident in their abilities, their level of math anxiety was very low in international comparison, and on average, students even reported a positive experience of attending school during the pandemic.

Finnish students reported feeling less lonely than the average OECD student. They did not feel left behind in their learning, and in other ways, their attitudes toward independent learning were more positive and confident than the OECD average. However, while students’ attitudes seem to have improved in many ways, this positive development does not seem to be reflected in their performance.

Photograph on the cover: Unsplash