The brainy questions on Finland’s only high-stakes standardized test

ORIGINAL: Washington Post
March 24 at 10:30 am
Much has been written in recent years about Finland’s vaunted education system, which has consistently scored at or close to the top in international test scores and has the distinction of operating under policies very different from those that drive U.S. corporate-based education reform. In Finland, teachers are respected and students don’t take a mountain of standardized tests. In fact, they take one high-stakes standardized test, as explained here by Pasi Sahlberg, a visiting professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education and former director general at the Finland’s Ministry of Education. He is a schoolteacher and teacher educator who has advised governments around the world about education policy and change. He has served the World Bank in Washington D.C. and the European Commission in Turin, Italy.  His best-selling book, “Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland,” is the winner of 2013 Grawemeyer Award. Sahlberg has written some earlier pieces for The Answer Sheet, including this provocative piece: “What if Finland’s great teachers taught in U.S. schools?” By Pasi Sahlberg  He can be reached at and @pasi_sahlberg.
Many Americans who visit Finland to examine its education system are surprised by how rarely students are required to take standardized tests during their 12 years of schooling. They learn that students are primarily assessed by multiple teacher-made tests that vary from one school to another. At the national level sample-based student assessments similar to the National Assessment of Educational Progress that have no stakes for students, teachers, or schools are the main means to inform policy-makers and the public on how Finland’s school system is performing. Teachers and principals in Finland have a strong sense of professional responsibility to teach their children well but also to judge how well children have learned what they are supposed to learn according to curriculum designed by teachers.
This customized school system that attempts to meet local and individual needs is a poor host for external inspections and standardized tests. The only external standardized test in Finland is the national Matriculation Examination, a high-stakes exam that determines college readiness and which all students are required to pass in order to graduate high school exit and  enter university. At the time of writing this over 30,000 Finnish high school students are taking this all-important examination that enjoys high esteem as a sign of being a mature, educated person in Finnish society.
Only a few education tourists to Finland have an opportunity to explore this 162-year-old establishment of Finnish education system in depth. Although the examination has changed profoundly during the years, its existence has never been seriously challenged. Most Finns, including students and teachers, are happy with one examination given at the end of high school rather than more frequent tests and the side-effects that often come with them during the course of schooling.
The Matriculation Examination is administrated by an external board appointed by the Ministry of Education and Culture. The Board has about 40 members consisting of university professors, high school teachers, and education policy-makers. Exams are prepared and marked by separate subject committees that have altogether some 330 associate members.  The Secretariat of the Board that is responsible for technical matters related to employing, safeguarding and managing the examination has a staff of 22 people. Typical examination fee per student for five exams is about USD200. Entire administration of the Examination is financed from these student-paid fees.

What is the structure of this exam and what does it measure?

First, students must take at least four individual tests in order to be awarded the Matriculation Examination certificate.

  1. An exam assessing students’ competencies of mother tongue (Finnish, Swedish or Saami) is compulsory for everybody.
  2. Second, each student chooses three further tests from the following pool:
    • second domestic language (e.g. Swedish),
    • foreign language (most often English),
    • mathematics and
    • one test from the humanities and sciences category.
  3. Additionally, students may add optional exams in the following subjects:
    • various foreign languages,
    • history, 
    • civics, 
    • biology, 
    • geography, 
    • physics, 
    • chemistry, 
    • health education, 
    • psychology, 
    • philosophy, 
    • ethics, and 
    • religious studies.
Exams are offered twice a year, in September and March-April. Student musts complete all required tests of the examination within three consecutive exam periods of up to six hours each. All tests, except listening and reading comprehension in second domestic and foreign languages, are pencil-and-paper tests, typically requiring extensive writing in open-ended tasks.
Teachers whose students are taking the exam in school first read the test papers and give their initial marks. Then the Board’s subject committee members give their final marks independently from what teachers have marked to each exam that then leads to a grade. Subjects are graded using a seven-point scale adjusted to normal distribution. This means that number of top grades and failed grades in each exam is approximately 5 percent. One failed exam can be compensated by good performance in other exams. Exams and their grades are included in the Matriculation Examination Certificate that is awarded to a student who successfully passes the mandatory exams and has sufficiently completed required high school studies.
The Finnish Matriculation Examination is a measure of students’ general academic maturity, including their readiness to continue studies in higher education. A student’s successful performance on the Matriculation Examination becomes an asset to his or her university application. Whereas the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE)  is guided by the list of “potentially biased, sensitive, or controversial” topics, the Finnish examination does the opposite. Students are regularly asked to show their ability to cope with issues related to evolution, losing a job, dieting, political issues, violence, war, ethics in sports, junk food, sex, drugs, and popular music. Such issues span across subject areas and often require multi-disciplinary knowledge and skills.
Below are some examples from this spring’s Matriculation Examination:
Sample essay topics:
Some politicians, athletes and other celebrities have publicly regretted and apologized for what they have said or done. Discuss the meaning of the apology and accepting it as a social and personal act.”
“Has your body become your hobby?”
“Media is competing for audiences – what are the consequences?”
“Choose three world religions and compare the role and use of a holy image within them.”
Sample health education questions:
What is the basis of dietary recommendations in Finland and what is their aim?”
“Compare chlamydia and condyloma.
Sample psychology question:
Design a study to find out how personality affects individuals’ behavior on Facebook or other social media. Discuss the ethical considerations for that type of study.
Sample history question:
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels predicted that a socialist revolution would first happen in countries like Great Britain. What made Marx and Engels claim that and why did a socialist revolution happen in Russia?
Sample philosophy and ethics questions:
In what sense are happiness, good life and well-being ethical concepts?
“High school students often require that they are served a particular diet as their school lunch. Reasons may be medical, religious, ethical or moral. Describe students’ requirements and their reasons; and assess the righteousness of having any particular diet in school.”
The mathematics exam consists of 15 problems of which student can choose no more than ten. The mathematics exam held this spring is available (in Finnish) here. The English-as-a-foreign-language written exam (also includes a listening comprehension test) can be viewed here.
Finland’s universities still offer world-class academic studies free of tuition fees for all students (including foreign students), and most degree programs are offered in English. If an American wishes to study in Finland without the burden of college fees, she or he is expected to be on par with Finnish students in variety of knowledge domains, some of which may not be included in CAHSEE or other American high school exit tests. If your path brings you to learn in Finland, be prepared to engage in deep discussions about politics, religion, poverty, spiders, junk food, young people questioning authority and other topics absent from the tests you took in high school, regardless how you feel about these topics. College readiness is to be ready to deal with all aspects of the world we live in, not just those that resonate well with your own.