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.

Puffin Population Declining More Rapidly than Previously Believed

puffins iceland

The Icelandic puffin population has shrunk by 70% in the last thirty years. The Managing Director of the Icelandic Travel Industry Association (SAF) has stated that this is bad news for the ecosystem and for companies within the tourist sector, who have marketed the puffin as a kind of national symbol.

Decline much worse than previously believed

Iceland plays host to a significant portion of the world’s puffins, with approximately 20% of the global population nesting in the Westman Islands every year. While the Icelandic puffin population may not be as substantial as that of other bird species in the country, it has experienced a substantial decline over the past thirty years.

In an interview with RÚV, biologist Erpur Snær Hansen revealed that the latest data indicates a staggering 70% decline in the puffin population since 1995, surpassing the previously believed figure of 40%.

“We hadn’t analysed population trends from such an early period before, and it was shocking to discover that the decline was much more severe than previously estimated,” Erpur stated.

While puffin populations naturally fluctuate over time, the recent measurements unveiled an unprecedented pattern. “This recent decline appears to be distinct. This consistent delay in nesting and poor breeding is unprecedented in the 140-year history we have been studying.”

The primary cause of this decline stems from a scarcity of food for the birds, which can be attributed to rising sea temperatures. Additionally, puffin hunting accounts for at least 10% of the population decrease. Erpur emphasised that puffin hunting is not sustainable, despite recent declines in its prevalence. “Generally speaking, hunting declining populations is not a good philosophy.”

When asked about the potential ban on puffin hunting, Erpur responded:

“This spring, there was a consideration, in collaboration with the Environment Agency, to have scientists assess the impact of a sales ban because protecting this species is a challenging endeavour. This form of hunting, tied to land ownership, appears to have a peculiar exemption from common sense.”

Bad news for Icelandic tourism

In an interview with Vísir, Jóhannes Þór Skúlason, the Managing Director of the Icelandic Travel Industry Association (SAF), highlighted the negative consequences of the declining puffin population, particularly for the tourism industry:

“Naturally, this is detrimental to the ecosystem and to the tourism industry, too, which has embraced the puffin as its emblem. The puffin is an incredibly beautiful and unique bird. When people visit Iceland, being able to witness puffin nests in places like Borgarfjörður Eystri, Reynisjfara, West Iceland, and the Westman Islands enhances their experience. It would be truly unfortunate if the population fails to recover.”

Jóhannes further emphasised that some tourists specifically travel to Iceland for the opportunity to see puffins: “It is quite possible that individuals come here solely to observe the puffin, especially those from countries where the puffin is protected and, therefore, less visible.”

The constant changes in the biosphere can significantly impact tourism, as Jóhannes noted: “We have already witnessed changes in the distribution of other bird species, such as arctic terns. These developments raise various concerns.”

Housing Prices in the Capital Area Continue to Fall

Reykjavík apartments construction

The house price index in the capital area fell by 0.5% month-on-month in January. In the last three months, the index has decreased by 1.4%, which is the biggest decrease over a three-month period since August 2010. This is noted by Landsbanki bank’s Hagsjá report.

Housing market showing significant signs of cooling

The Landsbanki bank published its Hagsjá report this morning. The report, referring to data published by the Housing Construction Authority yesterday, notes that apartment prices in the capital area fell by 0.5% between December and January. This is the third month in a row that the index has decreased between months. Such a long continuous decrease has not been seen since the end of 2009. Decreases between months at that time were, however, somewhat greater than what is seen now.

“Nevertheless, this measurement and the latest trends,” the report reads, “indicate that the market is starting to show significant signs of cooling. This will contribute to the lowering of inflation, just as the Central Bank’s actions – which now seem to be yielding some results – have aimed to do … it is obvious that the market in the capital area has started to cool down considerably.”

The report notes that the price of detached houses decreased by 0.74% month-on-month, while apartment prices have decreased by 0.4%. In the last three months, detached houses have decreased by 4%. The cooling of apartment-building prices has not been as rapid; in the last three months, the price of apartments has decreased by 0.7%.

“The annual increase in the house price index is now 14.9%, which has not been lower since May 2021,” the report points out.

Fewer purchase agreements signed

Hagsjá also notes that the number of purchase agreements signed for residential property has not been lower since January of 2011, or 280. In comparison, 529 purchase agreements were signed last December.

“It should be kept in mind that these are preliminary figures, which are subject to change as more purchase agreements are received by the Housing Construction Authority. The month of January is often quiet in the housing market, but this most recent January appears to stand out.”

The report concludes by saying that the housing market is starting to show rapid signs of cooling: “The Central Bank has implemented various measures to stem rising inflation, e.g. increasing its interest rates significantly and tightening borrower conditions, which now seem to be producing the desired results.”

Support for PM’s Left-Greens Hits Near-Decade Low

According to a new Gallup poll, support for the government continues to decline. Countrywide support for the Prime Minister’s Left-Greens hasn’t been lower since the lead up to the 2013 Parliamentary elections.

Criticism over deportation of asylum seekers

A new Gallup poll (“Pulse of the Nation”) indicates that Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s Left-Green Movement has lost more than a third of its support since the last Parliamentary elections. The poll was conducted between May 2 and May 31. The Left-Greens saw the most significant decline since the previous poll was conducted; the party has recently been criticised over plans to deport an inordinate number of asylum seekers.

Only 8.1% of respondents stated that they would vote for the Left-Green Movement if elections were held now, which is two percentage points lower when compared to the last poll – and 4.5% less than the Left-Green Movement received during the previous elections. Support for the party hasn’t been lower in nine years, RÚV reports.

Support for the People’s Party has also declined compared to the previous Parliamentary elections (although the numbers have remained nearly unchanged since the last poll); 6.4% of respondents said that they would vote for the People’s Party, compared to 8% in the last poll. The party made headlines after screenshots of obscene text messages from MP Tómas A. Tómasson made the rounds on the internet. Chairman Inga Sæland subsequently stated that the party would “stand by” Tómas and that the controversy would not affect his role as MP.

The Independence Party still the most popular

The Independence Party remains the most popular political party nationwide, according to the poll, with just over 20% of respondents declaring support. These numbers suggest decreased support from the last Parliamentary elections, however, where the Independence Party received 24.4% of the vote.

Fresh off of successful municipal elections, the Progressive Party continues to enjoy increased backing since the last Gallup poll. The party stands out among the governing coalition as it appears not to have lost support from the previous elections (17.5%).

The three governing parties are now polling at roughly 44%, which is about three percentage points lower than last month.

Continued support for the opposition

The three largest opposition parties have all gained support from the last Parliamentary elections: the Pirate Party is polling at 14.7%, the Social Democratic Alliance at 14.1%, and the Reform Party at 9.5%.

The Socialist Party is polling at 5% and the Centre Party at 4.3%. Over 7% were unwilling to specify support for one political party over another, and 8% stated that they would not vote or cast an empty ballot.