Rank smell wafts from Finnish tables

A scene of stark choices, tough objectives and ideas for a new way forward were presented last week to the European Educational Research Association in Slovenia. David Budge went along with 600 researchers to find food for thought.

Finland has taken a deep breath and dived into the murky world of school performance tables. Newspapers are now ranking senior secondary schools on the basis of their pupils' performance in national matriculation examinations. But, as in Britain, statisticians are queuing up to prove how misleading the tables can be.

The debate now under way in Finland is not an exact replica of the one that the UK has witnessed, however. Instead of homing in on the lack of "value-added" measures in the tables or the choice of benchmarks, Finnish researchers are pointing out that such tables are poor at predicting schools' future academic success or failure.

One study that tracked the average matriculation examination scores of 478 senior secondary schools between 1980 and 1992 found a surprising degree of fluctuation. Only 23 schools scored consistently well, remaining in the top 25 per cent band throughout the 12-year period.

The number of schools that languished in the bottom 25 per cent was even smaller (7) whereas no fewer than 186 (39 per cent) schools "visited" all four quartiles. A similar pattern emerged when the results of teacher assessments were compared.

"These results indicate that it is questionable to publish annual rankings in newspapers or use them in decision-making on the assumption that they shed light on future performance as well," say the authors of the study, Tanja Kirjavainen and Heikki Loikkanen, who presented their findings to the conference.

"Of course, there are some schools which are all the time on the top, but their number is relatively small and beyond them there is a lot of volatility in rankings over time.

"Our analysis does not, however, tell why there is such volatility. Is it due to variations in the student body or resources? That is a topic for future research."

'Up or down? On changes in national matriculation examination scores in Finnish senior secondary schools during 1980-92', by Tanja Kirjavainen and Heikki Loikkanen. Contact: Tanja Kirjavainen, research associate, University of Tampere, and Helsinki School of Economics and Business Administration. e-mail: kirjavai@hkkk.fi

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