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Challenges and tendencies - Iceland

Public debate on examinations and assessment tools in primary/lower secondary schools has in recent years focussed on the national examinations and conventional in-school examinations which assess pupils’ knowledge. Every year the results of the national examinations lead to debate in the media and among the general public on the performance of individual schools and regions of the country. The media have linked the results to the quality of the school’s work. Schools with “good” results have been praised, while others have been branded as “poor.” 

In 2004, changes were therefore made in the scale of grades in the examinations, and an index of progress was introduced, which indicates changes in the position of the school and individuals between Years 4 and 7, and Years 7 and 10.  

According to the staff of the Educational Testing Institute, which supervises the administering and processing of national examinations for the Ministry of Education, the main cause of these changes is that in debate and media coverage the results of the national examinations in individual schools are invariably linked to the internal work of the school. 

Debate on inclusive study assessment is limited as yet within primary/lower secondary schools and in society in general. A few progressive schools have developed the use of portfolios, which pupils use for self-assessment, together with their teacher and parents. The policy of the City of Reykjavík on individual-oriented study in an inclusive school (School for All) has, however, stimulated debate among educators on flexible teaching methods and inclusive study assessment. Various other local governments have also taken steps in this direction. Pupils, parents and the media have so far played little part in this debate. 

The legal framework for study assessment policy is clear. The principal objective of official study assessment is to ascertain as far as possible whether the objectives of the National Curriculum Guide in the relevant subject are achieved. National examinations are also intended to provide information on where schools stand in the subjects examined, vis-à-vis other schools in the country. The national examinations are dominant in the public debate on the status of pupils in primary/lower secondary school. The combination of national examinations and intermediate objectives of the National Curriculum Guide is one of the State’s most effective tools to evaluate how well local governments are meeting the objectives set by the State for school work. The tendency is for the State to wish to continue with the examinations, and even to increase the number of examinations. This enables the state to have a real influence on the internal work of the schools. In local government there has been little debate on the role of national examinations, and this probably indicates that they are largely in favour of them. 

Through flexible study assessment, linked to the teaching methods of each school, and continuous assessment by class teachers linked to their teaching and study, the working methods, diligence and co-operative skill of individual pupils can be assessed better, as the assessment is broader based than that of the national examinations. Flexible assessment within primary/lower secondary school appears to reflect whether the school’s work is guided by flexible teaching methods and individual oriented study. Policy formation in individual communities is important here. At the first local government conference on compulsory schools in 2004, it transpired that relatively few local governments have formed a clear educational policy, and an informal survey indicated that few had formed a clear policy on assessment. 

In initial assessment, formal evaluation of development by physicians and psychologists is important, but it is important to bridge more effectively the existing gap between the assessment findings and practice in teaching and other school work. Follow-up and counselling to teachers and other school staff, based on the diagnostic findings, is vital. A handover meeting between specialists/diagnostic parties and the school, who together review the findings on which individual curricula are based, is vital for teacher and pupil. If there is little or no follow-up on the medical/psychological diagnosis, it will be of limited value in the school’s work. The cost of diagnostic work is high, and if the diagnosis is not used in ongoing work with the pupils, e.g. in the creation of individual curricula, that work is not being utilised in the school’s work. Diagnosticians cannot refuse to provide consultation in the making of individual curricula for handicapped pupils. 

Assessment results: national and regional

In the debate on national examinations, it has been considered whether the social environment affects the results of national examinations. Annual reports on the national examinations reveal that grades in national examinations have for many years been highest in Reykjavík and the surrounding communities, and lower in the regions. Various factors have been cited in the debate, for instance that attitudes to education vary in different regions, that in the more sparsely populated regions educators do not set such high standards, that there are more experienced teachers in the capital area, or that more parents in the capital area are university educated. 

Some local governments have made use of the results to initiate changes in their educational work, providing more funding, and seeking to bring in more qualified teachers. 

A study carried out at the University of Iceland in 1999 revealed that the social status of residents in Reykjavík school districts appears to be a more important factor than the work of the schools.  The higher the proportion of the population who are university graduates, the higher the average grades in national examinations. In Reykjavík the results were generally highest in the west and central districts, and declined in the more easterly parts of the city, where fewer people are university educated. 

Costs of assessment

Today more parties than in the past are involved in diagnosis and assessment of handicapped pupils and those which considerable special needs. Cross disciplinary teams of professionals carry out detailed diagnostic work, from more points of view than in the past. The diagnostic findings are more sophisticated, but at the same time the cost of diagnosis has increased greatly. The cost of specialist services is rising, and it should be pointed out that, assuming that one psychological assessment by one psychologist, with processing and reporting, takes ten hours, a cross disciplinary assessment by many parties costs up to four times as much. It is thus important, both from a professional and a financial viewpoint, that the diagnostic findings be utilised in ongoing work with the pupil. 

According to information from the Educational Testing Institute, the annual direct cost of the national examinations in grades 4, 7 and 10 of primary/lower secondary school is about ISK 72 million. When local government took over responsibility for primary/lower secondary education in 1996, an agreement was made to establish a Local Government Equalisation Fund, whose role was inter alia to allocate funding to local governments for pupils with special needs. Allocations are made on the basis of the pupil’s diagnostic and assessment documents. A physician appointed by the Equalisation Fund evaluates allocations to local governments for pupils with special needs, on the basis of the diagnostic findings. Funding is generally used for additional staff to assist the child in question. A handicapped child may be allocated up to a six-fold contribution if the diagnosis confirms that he/she has great special needs. The number of such diagnoses has increased greatly, and today there are long waiting-lists, of up to two years, at some diagnostic facilities, for primary/lower secondary school pupils. The medical model is thus predominant with regard to diagnosis, criteria and allocation of funding for handicapped children and those with considerable special needs, within primary/lower secondary school.

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