Springtime means final grades for comprehensive school students desperate to get into their preferred high school or vocational school, and those grades are crucial in that selection. There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that the grading process may be inconsistent, disadvantaging some students who get lower grades than they really deserve.
Researcher Sirkku Kupiainen from the University of Helsinki's Centre for Educational Assessment (CEA) says that a number of studies say that some students are at risk of being left behind due to the uneven playing field.
"There's a clear tendency at work here," Kupiainen says. "Students in schools that have a lower average performance level tend to get better grades than in schools where the performance trend is high."
Children in Finland must attend nine years of basic comprehensive school. High schools and vocational schools choose their new students based largely on the young applicants' grades at the end of the ninth and final year of their basic education.
Teachers are in charge of the grades with which their students go on to apply for secondary education. There is a limited appeals process that goes in the first instance to the school's headteacher, and then to the regional state administrative agency with no further appeals possible after that. One teacher in the Helsinki suburb of Puistola says that some cases require more assessment than usual.
"Perhaps the biggest challenge is with children who need extra tutoring and students whose Finnish is wanting," says Jukka-Pekka Leistola, a history teacher of 15 years' standing. "How can we use the same criteria for each person? Determining the value of the spectrum of grades [from failing 4 to optimum 10] is part of that work."
Rights at risk
With the new curriculum, set to be in place in the next few years, diverse learning methods will be at the forefront of pedagogical policy. The switch will not affect the evident difficulty of uniformly interpreting evaluation criteria, and children's right to be fairly assessed when leaving basic education especially is on the line.
"This is a question of legal protection at a high level of professional know-how," Kupiainen corroborates. "It's obvious that kids in stricter schools may not be able to attend the high school or vocational school they would learn best in or indeed be entitled to."
Kupiainen says that a national exam database for teachers might help with the problem. Teachers also receive additional training to better cope with variations in student assessment.