Teacher trade union OAJ has called for better guidelines for grading comprehensive schoolwork in Finland, stating that the current evaluation criteria (in Finnish) issued by the National Agency for Education have proved problematic across all subjects.
"There are too many criteria and they are too complex. […] We have insisted that they cut them back, as every single one contains many things that are open to interpretation. The criteria should be far more straightforward," says the OAJ's development manager Jaakko Salo.
A 2015 study of year 7-9 maths competencies from the Finnish Education Evaluation Centre found that "the grades of students doing equally well but studying in different schools could have a systematic difference of up to two points".
Salo says the spread is probably closer to four different grades for the same skill set.
Comprehensive schools in Finland follow 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.
Benchmarking against fellow pupils
National Education Agency evaluation criteria lay out the performance necessary in each subject to achieve a "good" grade of 8. The teachers' union says this is part of the problem.
"We feel that criteria should also be at least drawn up for a grade of 5, or minimum competence. It has apparently already been decided that new criteria for grades of 5, 7 and 9 should be outlined," Salo says.
He says using only grade 8 as a reference puts too much emphasis on comparing the pupils on a classroom or school-wide basis, making grading decisions highly relative.
"The rest of the student body becomes the teacher's benchmark. At its worst, this means that schools with poorer overall performance divvy out better grades for weaker competencies. This should not be happening," Salo says.
How to grade art?
Raimo Alaraatikka has taught art for two decades, and now works at the Sammonlahti primary school in the southeast city of Lappeenranta. He says that the most common grades he gives his pupils are 7, 8 or 9. Deciding on what number to assign is never easy, he says, even for a teacher with years of experience.
The Education Agency's criteria say that in order to receive a grade of 8 in the visual arts, students should be able to express their thoughts and observations in a descriptive manner, using a variety of tools. They should also be able to aptly describe their perceptions of art, environment and visual culture, use a range of materials, techniques and methods, and recognise the potential images have to express ideas.
If a student gets a grade of 6 in visual arts, it is usually because of problems related to motor coordination or perception. Alaraatikka says he rarely gives his pupils a failing grade.
"A grade of 4 is only given if there are a lot of absences, if the work is incomplete, or if it was never started at all," he says.
Equally rare is the best grade of 10.
"In that case, the student exceeds expectations in terms of skill and intellectual abilities,” Alaraatikka said.
He points out that the school teachers' evaluation of pupils' performance extends beyond just the grades. Teachers provide feedback to the children throughout the year, discussing their work progress with them regularly and reminding those who have fallen behind what is necessary to keep up.
New criteria in the works
The National Agency for Education is currently renewing its grading criteria for comprehensive schooling in Finland. The agency says it will publish new primary school grading criteria in late 2019-early 2020, and the goal will be to take the new guidelines into use in the spring of 2020.
New grading criteria for final school-leaving certificates, awarded at the end of year 9, will come into force two years after this.