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.

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.

Iceland Must Tackle Inflation and Make the Most of Immigration

Iceland’s economy is currently one of the fastest growing in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Foreign tourism and strong domestic demand are the reasons for this growth, but it is expected to slow, according to the latest OECD Economic Survey of Iceland. The OECD recommends that Iceland’s policy continue to focus on bringing down inflation, strengthening productivity growth by improving the business climate, and helping migrants integrate.

“Iceland has rebounded strongly from the pandemic and has proven resilient in the face of the economic impact of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine across Europe and globally,” OECD Secretary-General Mathias Cormann said when he presented the survey in Reykjavík alongside Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs Bjarni Benediktsson. “Continued monetary policy and fiscal policy tightening remain necessary to return inflation to target and properly anchor inflation expectations. Establishing a one-stop to simplify access to migrant integration services, including skills recognition and Icelandic language literacy, will help to optimise the beneficial impact of the increased number of migrants on long-term growth.”

Inflation to decline but persist

Inflation has remained persistent in Iceland despite efforts to tackle it, including consistent interest rate hikes by the Central Bank. According to the OECD survey, it is projected to decline but still exceed 3% by late 2024. Economic growth is expected to moderate from 6.4% in 2022 to 4.4% in 2023 and 2.6% in 2024, according to the OECD. There are indications that Iceland is reaching its capacity for tourism, and as the industry levels off, household consumption is expected to slow and real wages to continue to weaken.

Reforms to business climate recommended

The OECD survey found barriers to entry for domestic and foreign companies to be relatively high in Iceland, despite progress in tourism and construction. It suggested structural reforms to improve the business climate, such as easing the overreaching system of licences and permits and investing in skills relevant to the labour market. Such reforms would reinvigorate productivity, which has been trending upward by only about 1% yearly, and would help with the fight against inflation, according to the OECD.

Aging population a risk to debt sustainability

When it comes to public expenditure, the survey emphasises that spending on health and long-term care is expected to rise considerably as the population ages, although from a lower base than in almost any other OECD country. The survey recommended reforms such as lifting the retirement age and reducing tax expenditures to slow the build-up of debt.

Better integration of migrants required

Figures from the OECD survey show that immigration in Iceland is rising faster than in other Nordic countries and that it brings large economic benefits. The median age of immigrants in Iceland is lower than in any other OECD country, at between 30-35 years, and their participation rate is higher than in any other country, at over 85%.

The OECD survey emphasises that Iceland should step up its efforts to better integrate migrants and their children, such as by establishing a one-stop shop for services, which would make language training courses more effective and would ease skills recognition. More support is needed for students with immigrant background, including more teacher training in multicultural education.

“Successful integration also requires meeting the housing needs of the immigrant population, including through increasing the supply of social and affordable housing,” the OECD press release on the survey states.

An overview of the survey including findings and charts is available on the OECD website.

PISA Test Measures Drop in Reading Comprehension


Icelandic students’ reading skills have worsened, according to the most recent findings of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). When compared to students in other countries, Icelandic 15-year-olds scored slightly above average in mathematics skills, below average in science, and in the bottom 25% of countries in the study’s reading portion.

A worldwide study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), PISA measures 15-year-old school students’ scholastic performance on mathematics, science, and reading. The test has been administered every three years since 2000 with the aim to provide comparable data that OECD countries can use to improve their educational policies and outcomes. A total of 79 countries took part in the test this year, and the response rate in Iceland was 87%.

Icelandic students did worse on the latest PISA study than their peers in the Nordic countries. According to the study’s results, a third of Icelandic boys did not exhibit basic reading skills. The results also show that students in rural areas do worse than those in the Reykjavík capital area. Icelandic students’ math skills have, however, shown a marked improvement since the last PISA test was administered.

Education Minister responds

Minister of Education Lilja Alfreðsdóttir presented an action plan this morning to counteract students’ declining reading skills. They include reviewing teaching material, increasing teaching hours spent on the Icelandic language, and creating a council of specialists in literacy, mathematics, and sciences directly under the minister. “We need to take extensive measures to improve literacy and improve pupils’ vocabulary and comprehension, but it is imperative that this work is done in good collaboration with the school community, municipalities, and households in the country,” Lilja stated.

PISA controversy

Lilja’s predecessor Illugi Gunnarsson was cautiously sceptical about Iceland’s PISA results back in 2016, stating that PISA does not measure “whether our kids are creative, whether they are resourceful, social, and so on. In other words: PISA does not measure the entire school system.”

The study has received criticism as well, with Forbes reporting that in some countries, only top-performing students take part, slanting the results. In 2014, a group of over 80 educators wrote an open letter to the study’s director Dr. Andreas Schleicher, expressing concern about the negative consequences of the PISA rankings, particularly that they had led countries to make short-term overhauls that were not necessarily in the best interest of students in a “race to the top” of the list.

Samherji and Iceland Under Scrutiny

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir is prepared to ensure any additional funding that may be needed to investigate Samherji’s operations in Namibia. Icelandic banks also report that they plan to investigate their business with Samherji. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) says Iceland’s handling of the bribery scandal will be a touchstone case and plans to follow the matter closely.

Government investigates

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir stated in an interview on Kastljós yesterday that if tax authorities need more funding to conduct an investigation into Samherji’s affairs, it will be provided, so that the issue is researched “with due diligence.” The Prime Minister added that it’s also necessary to consider whether laws need to be amended in order to require large unlisted companies, like Samherji, to submit comparable information to companies listen on the stock market.

Icelandic banks investigate

Arionbanki’s board of directors has requested a detailed examination of the bank’s business with Samherji. Friðrik Sophusson, chairperson of the board at Íslandsbanki, says the board will likely discuss the issue at a meeting today. Helga Björk Eiríksdóttir, chairperson of Landsbanki’s board, stated the bank cannot comment on issues relating to its customers, but is legally bound to carry out statutory supervision of its customers.

Norwegian bank DNB is reviewing the tax component of Samherji’s case. The bank ceased its business relationship with Samherji last year as it deemed the company a money laundering risk.

Björgólfur Jóhannsson, who took over as CEO of Samherji following Þorsteinn Már Baldvinsson’s resignation last Thursday, says that one ship which is part of the company’s foreign operations is financed through an Icelandic bank. Björgólfur says the company will provide banks with information on its finances if it is requested.

Þorsteinn Már has not only stepped down as CEO of Samherji, he has also requested indefinite leave from the board of Síldarvinnslan and stepped down as board director of Faroese fishing company Framherja.

“Touchstone case,” says OECD

Drago Kos, chair of the OECD Working Group on Bribery, says the case data appears trustworthy, and the case will be a touchstone for Icelandic authorities. The case is being formally investigated by Icelandic police, and the OECD will follow its development closely.

“For us at the OECD, it will be a good test of the Icelandic police and the prosecution to see how they handle the case,” Kos stated. “We are closely monitoring the case’s progress.” Kos says he hopes Icelandic authorities will address the case “within a reasonable timeframe, in a quick and efficient way,” underlining that the first step is to determine whether the allegations are in fact true.

Low Secondary Education Graduation Rate for Males

Iceland has a higher percentage of males without a secondary education than most other OECD nations, Kjarninn reports. This was revealed in the OECD study Education at a Glance 2018, which looks at education levels for males between 25 to 34 years old. OECD, which stands for the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, is an intergovernmental organisation comprised of 36 countries.

24% of Icelandic males between 25 to 34 years old have not completed secondary education. The only European countries to have a lower rate are Portugal, Spain, and Portugal. Meanwhile, 15% of Icelandic females between 25 to 34 years have completed secondary education.

The difference between male and female graduation rates are 9%, while the difference in Sweden, Norway, and Finland is 3-4%. Denmark has a difference of 7% between male and female graduation rates.

In 2007, the graduation rate for males between 25-34 was 31%, so the rate has lowered by 7% in eleven years. The average rate of decrease for OECD countries since 2007 is 5%.