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PISA: Icelandic Students Lagging Behind Nordic Peers

The 2022 PISA results show a decline in literacy and other skills among Nordic countries, particularly in Iceland. Professor Emeritus Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson has suggested that the growing influence of English in Iceland’s linguistic environment may be a key factor affecting reading comprehension.

Declining literacy across the Nordic countries

The results of the OECD’s 2022 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) were published yesterday. The assessment measures the proficiency of 15-year-old students in reading comprehension, science literacy, and mathematics literacy.

As noted in a press release on the government’s website yesterday, the results indicate a decline in student performance in participating countries compared to previous assessments. This decline is observed across all of the Nordic countries, with a more significant decrease having occurred among Icelandic participants.

Iceland ranks below the average of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in all three categories, and a lower percentage of Icelandic students possess basic and exceptional skills compared to the Nordic and the OECD average.

Signs of increasing inequality

Among other notable findings in the assessment is that students with parents in lower socio-economic positions fare worse in the survey across participating countries. As noted on the government’s website, there are — similar to other Nordic countries — signs of increasing inequality in educational achievement in Iceland over time, especially in reading comprehension.

A lower percentage of Icelandic boys achieve basic competency in science literacy (61%) compared to girls (68%), with the most significant gender gap in basic competency in reading comprehension (53% for boys versus 68% for girls).

“It is clear from the PISA 2022 results that authorities, municipalities, institutions, and organisations need to unite in understanding the reasons behind the negative trends in reading comprehension and literacy revealed in the survey and respond accordingly,” the government website notes.

It all comes down to reading comprehension

Having published an article entitled “The Bleak PISA Findings” (Kolsvört PISA-skýrsla), Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson, Professor Emeritus of Icelandic and Linguistics at the University of Iceland, discussed the PISA results on the evening news yesterday.

“I think it all comes down to reading comprehension, although there are three aspects to the test: reading, science, and mathematics, both the mathematics and science portions of the assessment are based on reading comprehension. These are text-based tasks,” Eiríkur remarked.

“Reading comprehension is deteriorating, and that’s linked to the status of the Icelandic language in society. We are faced with a drastically changed linguistic environment where English has become a much larger part of teenagers’ linguistic surroundings than it used to be.”

Eiríkur also noted, as he had done in his article, that the Icelandic translation of the PISA tests had not always been adequate. Referring to a 2020 research paper by Auður Pálsdóttir and Sigríður Ólafsdóttir — which demonstrated significant discrepancies in word frequency categories between the original texts and their translations (meaning the Icelandic words in the tests are often rarer than their English counterparts) — Eirikur suggested that the Icelandic translation of the assessment may simply be too heavy when compared to the assessment in other languages.

Eiríkur noted, however, that he had not examined the texts of the latest PISA survey.

Alarming trends

Eiríkur observed that these two considerations were not the only causes for concern. The latest assessment, as previously noted, indicated that children from poorer social and economic backgrounds performed worse in the assessment. Eiríkur characterised this trend as being particularly “alarming.”

“It’s a major concern. It means that these teenagers are highly likely to drop out of school and then be trapped in low-wage jobs that require little education when they enter the job market,” Eiríkur stated.

When asked what he would do if he were in the shoes of the Minister of Education, Eiríkur replied: “I don’t think it would be enough to just be the Minister of Education because this isn’t just about the school system. It’s about the entire society; we need to change the status of the Icelandic language. Parents and homes play a significant role, and society as a whole needs to prioritise Icelandic much more.”

Pandemic effects

As noted on the government’s website, the pandemic had various impacts on school operations, teachers, and students in the OECD countries. Two-thirds of the countries participating in PISA 2022 closed schools for three months or longer. The overall performance trend of countries from 2018 to 2022 suggests the pandemic’s impact, particularly in mathematical literacy and reading comprehension.

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