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PISA: Gap between girls' and boys' reading skills largest in Finland

 Finnish girls' reading skills outpaced boys' more than in any other country in the survey of educational proficiency.

Kolme ylä-aste ikäistä nuorta koululuokassa
Students, Said Hanate (left), Milja Vertola and Maria Nieminen said the focus on PISA results places 15-year-olds under unnecessary pressure. Image: Tanja Heino/Yle

Finnish students continue to rank among the best in the world in terms of literacy and numeracy, according to the latest results of the Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA) survey, released on Tuesday.

However while Finland’s 15-year-olds appear to be holding their own in the educational attainment ranking, the gender difference in proficiency in reading was among the widest of all the countries that participated in the triennial survey in 2018.

The results of the survey are based on tests of about 8,000 15-year-olds organised by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in the spring of last year. According to the outcome, Finnish students outperformed the OECD average in reading, mathematics and science. However the organisation noted in its country report for Finland that mean scores in these areas continued to decline from 2006 onwards.

Students from China, Singapore and Estonia outshone their Finnish peers in reading, while Canada, Ireland and South Korea also fared well.

Growing impact of family background

According to the analysis, Finnish students' scores in mathematics declined rapidly in surveys after 2010, but now appear to be levelling out. Many Asian countries as well as neighbouring countries Estonia and Denmark have overtaken Finland in terms of students' mathematics performance. In the comparison of 79 countries, Finland now stands in 16th place.

Finland’s results in science have been declining steadily and the country is now sixth in that ranking. It also ranks sixth in reading proficiency, along with Canada.

It has long been held that one advantage of basic education in Finland is its guarantee of equality regardless of individual background. However Tuesday’s PISA report suggests that family background also influences learning outcomes in Finland as well.

The reading skills gap between the highest and lowest socioeconomic groups in Finland was 79 points in the latest survey. This corresponds to a difference of two years of schooling.

This outcome is due to the fact that the results of the lowest socioeconomic quarter have deteriorated between 2009 and 2018, while those of the highest quarter have remained the same.

Two-thirds of boys read only if they have to

According to Tuesday’s survey, the difference between boys’ and girls’ reading proficiency was the largest among OECD countries. The point difference was 52 in favour of girls, with the average split along other OECD countries being 30 points.

Gender differences in proficiency in science and mathematics were more moderate, however.

The attitudes of Finnish students to reading have become more negative, according to the latest survey. A growing number of 15-year-olds said they did not enjoy reading and that it was not one of their hobbies. Additionally, 63 percent of boys said they read only if they have to.

The report suggests that those attitudes are reflected in levels of competence. Students who said they were not interested in reading fared poorly, and as more students underperformed, the group average fell.

Students: Less emphasis on PISA, please

Yle asked ninth-year students whether or not Finland’s PISA results should be a cause for concern.

"Maybe a little," said ninth-year pupil Milja Vertola, a student at Helsinki’s Suutarinkylä comprehensive school. Neither she nor her friends Said Hanate or Maria Nieminen had done the PISA tests, but they are the same age as the test group.

"We all use the internet a lot. You have to read things there every day," Vertola said.

For Hanate, time spent reading meant time away from other activities.

"There’s the internet, games and training. There are so many new things. Young people don’t buy books or go to the library to read when everything is online," he noted.

Nieminen said her teacher helped her to find books in genres that she finds interesting. "I've noticed that I like horror stories and murder and crime mysteries," she added.

Hanate said that students should be given more leeway to choose the books they read at school. "Teachers usually tell you what themes and how many pages you have to read. Reading should be more relaxed and you should be able to read what you're interested in," he argued.

Meanwhile Vertola said that it was odd how much emphasis Finland places on PISA results. "We’re only just 15 years old. Are we being put under too much pressure because of these tests?"

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