Renewal of the Finnish National Core Curriculum´s Assessment Chapter
This case study presents how a national curriculum works at the policymaking level in Finland, how it links ICT to assessment, and the implications for the introduction of digital formative assessment (DFA) practices in schools. The Finnish educational authorities decided to renew the assessment chapter of the curriculum to make a clear distinction between formative and summative assessment. The assessment chapter was updated with a participatory approach together with teachers and stakeholders. The renewed version led to a unified and sustainable understanding of how assessment should be implemented in schools. This ultimately ensures equal treatment of students regardless of where they live in Finland.
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Finnish comprehensive school has approximately 554,000 students consisting of age 7 to 16 that are collated to 9 grades. The Finnish comprehensive school includes elementary school (grades 1 to 6) and upper comprehensive school (grades 7 to 9). There are approximately 2300 schools, 27 000 teachers and principals. About 95 percent of teachers possess a Master of Arts (MA) degree.
The Finnish municipalities are responsible for arranging and providing basic education. Finland is a bilingual country with Finnish and Swedish speaking areas, and both Swedish and Finnish are taught as a first language at schools. Finland also has the indigenous Sámi language as a first language at schools. Finally, to get to know more, here are some top picks to know about Finnish schools:
- Teaching is a highly respected and well-paid profession.
- There are no school inspections or teacher evaluations.
- The school system is highly decentralised, and most schools are publicly funded.
- School days are short, and the summer break is 10 weeks long.
- Children are assessed by their teachers.
- There are no nationwide standardised tests or exams except for research and development (e.g. PISA).
- In Finland national testing is only used as a diagnostic tool and has no implications for individual students or teachers.
- Average school size is 195 students; average class size is 19 students,
According to the Finnish Basic Education Act, the purpose of basic education is to support students' growth into humanity and ethically responsible membership in society and to provide students with the knowledge and skills necessary in life. The national core curriculum is the leading document that thoroughly defines practices of the basic education. It presents the underlying conditions, subjects and frames for every-day schoolwork.
Finland has a two-tier national administration in education - the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture and the Finnish National Agency for Education (EDUFI). The latter is responsible for the National Core Curriculum and qualification requirements whereas the Ministry is responsible for education policy and legislation. In Finland, the national core curriculum for comprehensive schools is updated once in a decade. The 2014 national core curriculum is currently in place today.
The drafting of the 2014 core curriculum started already in the late-2000´s after the previous 2004 core curriculum. The 2014 core curriculum and its creation are governed by EDUFI, yet the curriculum was constructed involving a wide group of stakeholders.
The agency's task is to coordinate the development process of the curriculum. The agency aims to bring together a large community of researchers, municipalities (education providers), school leaders, health authorities and officials, advocacy groups and unions, NGOs, associations and of course teachers, students and caregivers.
There are also cooperation networks, regional workshops and activities. This ensures that the core curriculum is a rich, evidence-based and multifaceted representation of how the Finnish society should learn, how to ensure equity and equality, and how the society participates to schools and with what mechanisms. The national core curriculum also defines assessment as a factor transforming the school culture.
After the national core curriculum is introduced, municipalities and other education providers (e.g. independent adult education centres) prepare their local version of the core curriculum. In figure 1 one can see a hierarchical structure of how both legislation and curriculums are intertwined together.
The teachers are involved in defining the local curriculum, which is a translation of the core curriculum to local needs. The local curriculum plays a key role in setting out and implementing both national targets and goals and tasks that should take priority at local level. The local curriculum is a strategic and pedagogical tool that defines the policies for the work carried out by the schools. The curriculum links the operation of the schools to other local activities aiming to promote the well-being and learning of children and young people. Finally, the translation of the local curriculum is the Schools’ Annual Plan. Each school has a School Annual Plan that concretely defines how the school operates, what are the working hours, schedules, and concrete guidelines for teaching in the school. It also defines the annual development plans and how to operate in a sustainable way. Teachers are heavily involved in deciding and planning how the school operates.
The sequenced implementation of the 2014 national core curriculum started in the fall semester of 2016 when it was first implemented at elementary grades 1-4. Finally, in the fall semester in 2019, 9th grade students started to use the new curriculum. Changes in the curriculum have a long-lasting effect on how schools work and operate and affect cultures of working and learning.
Figure 1 Basic education curriculum system in Finland
Transversal competences were also introduced to the core curriculum for the first time in 2014. These competences consist of knowledge, skills, values, attitudes and will. They are always taught, studied and assessed as part of the subjects. In addition, municipalities and schools can further define them according to their individual focus areas.
According to the core curriculum, ICT skills are an important civic skill and as such, part of multiliteracy. ICT in basic education is a transversal skill rather than a subject – it probes all subjects and activities in the school. ICT is systematically used in all grades of basic education, different subjects, and multidisciplinary learning entities as well as other schoolwork.
In the Finnish context, the student assessment in a curriculum is viewed as two-dimensional. On the one hand, the curriculum defines the principles and pedagogy of assessment, on the other hand, it defines standards, which are the assessment criteria for learning outcomes. In Finland, the emphasis is on the pedagogy of assessment which determines the use of ICT in assessment (e.g. the use of Digital Formative Assessment tools).
The assessment practices, both formative and summative, create ideal conditions to implement novel technology for diverse reasons. Formative assessment can be very innovative, combining both traditional and digital methods, portfolios, peer-assessment, quizzes, and games. Summative assessment can benefit from cloud-based services, sheets, and material banks that facilitate collecting and storing learning evidence. Transversal skills such as ICT competences can be combined with assessment practices as well where students may use online tools, rubrics and digital portfolios to follow their own learning.
The 2014 core curriculum is still under public discussion. The discussion is very important since it shows that the society, caregivers, researchers, students, unions and teachers are interested in participating in developing teachers’ practice and the school culture. The core curriculum raised discussion because it introduced paradigmatic changes, namely a so-called phenomenal learning (or inquiry learning), transversal skills and new assessment practices. The 2014 core curriculum also introduced more emphasis on using ICT in learning activities.
A quite new process was also to move away from updating the curriculum as a whole and to start updating the core documents in parts where needed. This makes the process more dynamic and on-going. It also has benefits in responding to a rapidly evolving society.
To further support this relatively new and dynamic process, EDUFI introduced a digital version of all curriculums in a website to further create conditions where curricula are open source and accessible for all.
Due to problems noticed after the implementation of the 2014 national core curriculum, the whole chapter concerning the assessment was decided to be rewritten and redesigned to enforce equity and equal treatment of students. The chapter did not describe assessment clearly and did not predict thoroughly what teachers desire from assessment in their working culture.
Research – Aligning formative and summative assessment
While teachers have found it important to make a clear distinction between formative and summative assessment, it is nevertheless important to ensure that both assessment approaches are aligned with each other and with goals for learning. For both formative and summative assessment, teachers identify the complex skills, knowledge or other attributes (including transversal skills) to be assessed and then plan the tasks and situations that will provide evidence of student learning – either for student improvement (formative assessment) or for a grade (summative assessment). The links between the evidence of learning progress and gaps, and the evidence gathered thus are made explicit (Mislevy and Haertel, 2006).
There was too much local and regional variation between assessment practices that jeopardised the equal treatment and equity among students. First, assessment of learning is very important to make inferences about learning. Assessment, especially summative assessment, gives normative qualifications for students to gain access to post-basic education institutions such as vocational education and upper secondary education that both have tracks to tertiary education and eventually higher education institutions. Second, teachers are responsible for a transparent and fair assessment of students based on norms and regulations. Therefore, if norms and regulations are understood differently in different parts of Finland, and for instance, some of the schools start numerical assessment for fifth graders and others for sixth graders, this creates variation among schools. Ultimately, this may endanger the comparability of student assessment between different regions and how their academic records are being formulated - the key principle in Finnish basic education is the equal treatment of students no matter where they live. Therefore, education authorities decided to update the assessment chapter of the core curriculum that went into effect in early 2020.
Research – Moderated teacher assessments
Variation in teacher assessments may be addressed by ensuring that teachers have clear standards for learning objectives, as well as criteria and exemplars showing different performance levels. For high-stakes tests, in particular, it may be important to develop processes for ‘moderated teacher assessments’, with teachers engaging in professional discussions regarding any inconsistencies in grades (Crisp, 2018, in English)
The main reason for renewing the assessment chapter was to make a clear distinction between formative and summative assessment. Especially the definition and practical dimension of formative assessment was not clearly mentioned and there was too much room for interpretation. Ultimately this led to varying practices on e.g. what grade to start a numerical grading, how to conduct formative assessment, whether it is mandatory to store and collect data and material regarding formative assessment. In 2017, the Finnish National Agency for Education reviewed 70 local curricula and noticed the following:
- local variation and interpretation occur in the principles of the assessment and the assessment criteria,
- formative and summative assessment have blended and been misunderstood to some extent,
- numerical summative assessment was typically started at grades 5 and 6.
Data gathered from the field (teachers, principals, municipal administration, etc.), confirmed that there was a need for national guidelines to avoid the local interpretation of assessment.
In addition, the Finnish Education Evaluation Centre (FINEEC) and research community gave their own insights on how the assessment in the curriculum should be further developed to develop clear guidelines. This process led to several guidelines introduced in 2020 in the renewed assessment chapter and then in January 2021 to the renewed assessment criteria for basic education:
- a clear distinction between formative and summative assessment,
- students’ self-assessment and peer-assessment were clearly defined as well as how they participated in the overall assessment process,
- final assessment practice and (numeral) criteria were clearly defined,
- guidelines regarding school degrees were improved,
- numeral assessment (i.e. final numeral certificates at the end of grades) was to start in grade 4 in every school,
- majority of the guidelines in the national core curriculum were to be transferred, in the way that they were defined, to local curricula.
In the 2020 renewed assessment chapter, the two-fold assessment is defined as follows. Formative assessment supports and guides learning, and does not have to be mandatory to be documented whereas summative assessment describes how well and to what extent the student has learned the learning objectives.
Furthermore, tests that are part of the summative assessment are to be documented and the teacher has the role of the assessor. Further, the school must share the same principles for the assessment that are a part of the school’s culture and the education provider (i.e. municipality) needs to monitor that the national guidelines are put in place.
These assessment practices and guidelines at school level can include for example: how the summative tests are documented, or whether there is a digital tool in place that can enable a dynamic assessment, whose use is strongly encouraged. Overall, Finnish teachers have a lot of autonomy in choosing what kind of methods, devices and tools they would like to use in their teaching.
The 2020 updated assessment chapter was well received by teachers and practitioners. According to the Trade Union of Education in Finland, the updated version made clear that for instance, teachers are not expected to archive material from formative assessment, which would have been time consuming.
To conclude, the purpose of formative assessment, according to the renewed version of the assessment chapter, is to guide the progress of the students’ learning regarding the learning objectives. Formative assessment helps students to understand their own learning, identify their strengths and weaknesses and improve their work to achieve the objectives set for the subjects. Formative assessment should be part of daily teaching.
Formative assessment is feedback that guides learning. It should help the students to understand the goals of the subject, to outline their own progress in relation to the set objectives and how to improve their performance of learning in relation to the objectives and evaluation criteria. Self- and peer-assessment are part of formative assessment.
Finally, the purpose of summative assessment is to describe how well and to what extent the student has achieved the objectives set for the subjects in the curriculum. Summative assessment is made at least at the end of each academic year as well as in basic education (typically at the end of 9th grade). However, the student and his / her guardian are also given information about the student’s progress of studies, work and behaviour during the school year.
At the end of each academic year, a certificate is issued. Summative assessment is done in relation to those objectives set out in the basic education curriculum and based on the local curriculum that together specify the learning objectives in each subject. Unlike FA, summative assessment requires to be archived.
Curriculum development should be inclusive and Involve all stakeholders. A true change is more sustainable when it has a bottom-up aspect, a democratic process, transparency and wide participation from all stakeholder groups.
Curriculum developers should explore what teachers expect from assessment norms - make sure that the assessment norms are understood the same way by all stakeholders.
A clear distinction should be made between formative and summative assessment – by making use of research and evidence, but also paying attention to the complex school setting where teachers work every day. Assessment should guide and help their work, not make it more complex.
Assessment should be an ongoing discussion point at the policy level but also inside schools and at different administration levels. Assessment culture changes throughout time and should be dynamic rather than passive.