PISA: Icelandic Students Lagging Behind Nordic Peers

OECD

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.

Vocabulary of Icelandic Youth on the Decline

iceland education

According to the Head of Assessments at the Directorate of Education, declining reading interest and English language dominance have contributed to the decade-long drop in Icelandic youths’ reading comprehension. Students prioritise other activities than reading in their free time.

Free time spent doing something else

Reading comprehension among the Icelandic youth has been on the decline for a decade. In an interview with Mbl.is today, Freyja Birgisdóttir, Head of Assessments at the Directorate of Education, was asked to comment on this trend.

“Reading interest among young people today is not particularly high. It’s just a competition for time, and most choose to do something else in their free time instead of reading. Moreover, as repeatedly pointed out, including by [professor] Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson, Iceland is a very small language community and Icelandic is in decline,” Freyja observed, noting that the OECD´s Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA), which assesses the proficiency of 15-year olds in key academic areas, was really the only tool to compare the aptitude of Icelandic students to their neighbours.

Freyja also discussed the impact of English on the Icelandic language environment. “The vocabulary of Icelandic students is simply declining because they read less. This is compounded by the prevalence of English in their environment. So, if we compare ourselves to other countries with larger language communities, their mother tongue is much more present in their environment than in ours. That’s just a fact. Therefore, we need to be ten times more conscious in protecting Icelandic, and I think that’s also part of it. Proficiency in Icelandic is not as good as it used to be.”

Freyja told Mbl.is that work was underway on a new reading comprehension test for students from the 3rd to 10th grade. “It’s intended to be a kind of formative assessment, meaning the test aims to map the students’ status more precisely, identifying their strengths and weaknesses.”

There are hopes to implement the test, in stages, this spring.

Emaciated Horses Spur Review of MAST’s Supervisory Role

Horse in Iceland

The National Audit Office will launch an assessment of the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority’s (MAST) monitoring of animal welfare, RÚV reports. The decision follows, among other things, reports that the desperate condition of roughly twenty horses in Borgarnes had been reported to MAST without any immediate action being taken.

In desperate condition

On Wednesday, news broke that nearly twenty emaciated horses had been kept inside for the entire summer in a stable in Borgarnes. The condition of the horses was described as “desperate.”

Speaking to RÚV on Wednesday, Steinunn Árnadóttir – who also keeps horses in the area – maintained that concerned parties had filed multiple complaints with the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST), but no action had been taken.

“They’re emaciated. They’re not allowed outside. They don’t see sunlight. They’ve been deprived of green grass. There’s a filly that I saw this spring, probably in May, that’s been inside ever since.”

Following these reports, the horses’ owner – who did not respond to interview requests from RÚV or other outlets – removed the horses from the stables under cover of night. RÚV reported that the person in question, who also keeps sheep and cows in other places in Borgarnes, had exhibited threatening behaviour to other residents.

The Animal Welfare Association of Iceland subsequently released a public statement calling for MAST to take action: “This isn’t the first time that MAST has responded unsatisfactorily to well-reasoned claims of poor treatment of animals. MAST has the legal authority to respond to such complaints without delay … it is clear that a thorough review of the authority’s supervisory role needs to be conducted.”

An assessment is launched

This morning, RÚV reported that the National Audit Office was set to launch an official review of the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority’s monitoring of animal welfare. The result of the assessment will be published in a report to Parliament.

Guðmundur Björgvin Helgason, a comptroller with the National Audit Office, stated that now was an opportune time to assess MAST protocols, especially in light of the reports of emaciated horses in Borgarnes.

“We regularly review possible assessments,” Guðmundur remarked, stating that administrative profiling of MAST had been undertaken in 2013, which was the year that animal welfare supervision was moved from the Ministry for the Environment to MAST. “So we’ve never had a point of contact with these sets of issues within MAST until now.”

The National Audit Office’s decision to launch the assessment was, in part, spurred by a few recent instances in which MAST’s supervisory role was criticised. “Which is why we felt that it was an appropriate time to review their role. If we come across any issues with regard to MAST’s supervision, we hope to shed further light on them.”

A brief update

The above-mentioned Steinunn Árnadóttir, who keeps horses in Borgarnes, spoke again to Vísir today, stating that a mare and her filly were still being kept inside the aforementioned stable in Borgarnes, deprived of sunlight. According to Steinunn, the owner had been forced to put his horses, which were malnourished and in desperate conditions, to pasture, but for some reason, the mare and filly were still inside the stable.