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Grades returning to Finnish primary schools

Some primary schools are again issuing numerical grades after years of focusing on written and oral feedback.

Ekaluokkalainen tekee kotitehtäviä keittiön pöydän ääressä.
In future, primary school pupils from the fourth grade of primary school onward will receive a numerical learning assessments. Image: Henrietta Hassinen / Yle

For the past four years, Finland’s education curriculum has been encouraging primary schools to give up on traditional grading systems in favour of written and oral evaluations of their students' academic performance, but grades are now about to return to Finnish primary schools.

In an about-face, the National Agency for Education has reduced local decision-making power in pupil evaluations at primary schools and created a set of unified criteria for use as the basis for grades.

The intent is to ensure that all school pupils receive equal treatment in different parts of the country. Grading is to start in the fourth year of school, although some schools will also be giving numerical report cards to third-graders as well.

Some municipalities have been quick to introduce evaluation changes. For example, schools in several municipalities in the Kanta-Häme region, that have up to now provided written assessments, are issuing grades before the Christmas break.

Grades are given under a somewhat illogical 10-point system in which there are actually only seven grades: 10 is the highest possible grade for excellent work, followed by 9 (very good), 8 (good), 7 (satisfactory), and 6 (fair). 5 is the lowest passing grade and a grade of 4 indicates that the pupil has failed.

Waiting and hoping

Third-graders in Forssa are making Christmas decorations, wreaths and paper snowball lanterns, during the crafts class. The pupils are excited to learn that on Friday, the last day of the autumn semester, they will unexpectedly receive a report card.

From now on, the 3rd-9th graders in schools in Forssa will receive grades on mid-term and end of academic year certificates. Previously, numbered grades appeared were given out only to fifth-graders and up.

“I'm a little excited about what's coming. I expect grades between eight and ten. I expect good grades in phys-ed and math,” says 9-year-old Hermanni Pirhonen,

Story continues after photo.

Nuori tyttö askartelee käpykranssia luokan lattialla
Daniela Mandelin's favorite subjects at school are handicrafts, phys-ed, visual arts, and Finnish-language lessons. Image: Miki Wallenius / Yle

For the first time, class teacher Eevi Happonen has given her students numerical grades.

This happened on a fairly tight schedule. For a long time we went with the idea that only fourth-graders get grades, but then it was decided to give them to third-graders as well,” says Eevi Happonen.

Not common yet

Third-graders in Hämeenlinna will also be getting report cards with numerical grades before the start of the Christmas holidays.

Forssa and Hämeenlinna seem to be forerunners in rolling out the education agency's new policy, and in also applying it to third-graders, as well.

“In Hämeenlinna, it was considered that the third year is a natural time to start giving grades. The third year introduces new subjects and otherwise learning and studying changes a bit,” says Marikki Arnkill, an education coordinator for the City of Hämeenlinna.

Story continues after photo.

Tummahiuksinen nainen työskentelee
Hämeenlinna Education Coordinator Marikki Arnkill emphasizes that learning assessment needs to be open, transparent and equal. Image: Miki Wallenius / Yle

Yle asked a few other municipalities what their plans are for pre-Christmas report cards. In Lahti, third-graders will get a report card, but with a written assessment. In Kuopio, third-graders will not get numerical grades until the end of the school year in the late spring.

In Helsinki, Espoo, Vantaa, Jyväskylä and Lahti, numbers will appear on report cards for pupils completing grades 4-9.

Still in the works

The National Agency for Education does not yet have a full rundown on how numerical assessment is being applied. The reform is based on guidelines and criteria, which came into force at the beginning of August.

Many parents say that the practice of written or tick-box assessments in use up until now has made it difficult to understand what kind of progress their children have been making.

Story continues after photo.

Luokanopettaja maski kasvoillaan seuraa käsityötunnilla käpyranssien tekoa
Eevi Happonen, a third-grade teacher in Forssa, thinks that some of the students' parents may be surprised when their child brings a full report card home before Christmas. Image: Miki Wallenius / Yle

“Two years ago, in online brainstorming sessions, we asked in what year of school numerical evaluation should start. The answer from teachers, parents and students was the third year,” recalls Marjo Rissanen from the National Agency for Education.

About 40 percent of pupils would have wanted numbers back on their report cards right from first grade.

Marikki Arnkill thinks that numerical assessment provides more accurate information about learning progress.

“Many young children in primary education who do not yet receive a numbered grade may have asked what this number would be. It’s a pretty natural way to grasp the concept,” Arnkill says.

Same data, different grades

Three years ago, the National Agency for Education took note of the wide variation of pupil assessments that were being made in different parts of the country. It was found that a pupil moving from one municipality to another could receive different grades, based on the same information as used in his or her previous school. The weighing of performance documentation, self-assessment and verbal assessment in determining grades has varied significantly depending on the school.

Education authorities are well aware that harmonising pupils' learning assessment in primary schools is a major undertaking. Teachers have asked for more training, and online sessions on the introduction of grading criteria for all subjects are to be held this coming spring.

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