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.

58% of Icelandic Children Internet Users Before Age of Two

Iceland flag national team
58% percent of Icelandic children have begun to use the internet before the age of two, a report from an Icelandic professor reveals. The ratio was 2% only six years ago. There are clues that the English language is beginning to affect the Icelandic language proficiency of children with Icelandic as their native tongue, RÚV reports.
This extensive study examined the effects of technological changes on the Icelandic language and its future, as well as focusing especially on how English is affecting Icelandic.
“Substantial changes are taking place in our linguistic surroundings, our attitude and language use, especially for young people. The prevalence of English in the language has increased significantly for children and teenagers,” said Sigríður Sigurjónsdóttir, a professor in the Icelandic at the University of Iceland.

The difference in a 6 year time span is astounding, as 2% of children had begun to use the internet before the age of two in 2013. This number has now gone up to 58% in 2019. “Eight percent of children today started to use smart devices before the age of one,” Sigríður stated.

The Icelandic accent, while speaking English, was also studied. It was revealed that young children who have not begun formal English studies in schools spoke English flawlessly. That is, they did not have an Icelandic accent while speaking English.

Children have also increasingly started to speak English with each other, rather than Icelandic. 29% of six to seven years sometimes speak English with their Icelandic speaking friends, and the same is true of 47% of eight to nine-year-olds.

Sigríður notes that individuals’ language proficiency is shaped in infancy and that English is now very prevalent in children’s surroundings.

“There are clues that these changes which are happening, and happen incredibly quickly, are potentially affecting our Icelandic competence. We need to place an emphasis on children and teenagers and somehow try to increase the prevalence of Icelandic in their language surroundings by creating exciting material in Icelandic. We need to have proficiency in a native language for the natural development of the brain, and if we don’t achieve that it could have serious consequences,” Sigríður stated.

„Það eru svona vísbendingar um að þessar breytingar sem eru að verða og eru gífurlega örar séu jafnvel að hafa áhrif á málkunnáttu okkar í íslensku. Við þurfum að leggja megináherslu á börn og unglinga og einhvern veginn að auka íslenskuna í málumhverfi þeirra með spennandi efni á íslensku. Fyrir eðlilegan heilaþroska þarf maður að hafa móðurmálsfærni í einu máli og ef það næst ekki þá getur það haft alvarlegar afleiðingar,“ segir Sigríður.