Decline in Finnish fourth graders’ mathematics and science achievement

Overall Finland performed well in the TIMSS comparison of nearly 50 countries

The fall that has earlier been found in PISA in Finnish 15-year-olds’ achievement can now also be seen at the fourth grade. Boys’ scores in particular have deteriorated, and girls now outperform them in all the content areas assessed. To guarantee better results in the future, special attention needs to be paid to students’ attitudes and abilities at the beginning of basic education. These were some of the main findings of the international TIMSS study assessing mathematics and science achievement, the results of which were released on November 29. 

Decline in achievement over the past four years

There was a clear decrease in Finnish fourth graders’ science and mathematics achievement between 2011 and 2015. In 2011 Finland’s mean score in science was 570 points and in 2015 it had fallen to 554 points, the difference being equivalent of about half a year of schooling. In mathematics the fall was somewhat smaller, from 545 to 535 points. Among the TIMSS 2011 top-performers Finland was the only country whose scores dropped over the four-year period.

In international comparison, Finnish fourth graders were tied for fifth place in science (third in 2011), after Singapore, Korea, Japan and the Russian Federation. In mathematics Finland fell outside the top 10 (tied for 13th; eight in 2011), the five best-performers all coming from Asia: Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Chinese Taipei and Japan.

-          Despite the drop in achievement, Finnish children still perform high by international standards. In science Finland ranks second among OECD countries, and in mathematics we are also clearly above the OECD average, remark National Research Coordinator Jouni Vettenranta and Researcher Jenna Hiltunen from the Finnish Institute for Educational Research, University of Jyväskylä.

Girls are now better than boys

In TIMSS 2011, there was no notable gender difference in Finland in science and in mathematics boys slightly outperformed girls. In this study, however, girls scored clearly higher than boys in every mathematics and science content area assessed. Between 2011 and 2015 boys’ score in science decreased by 22 points and in mathematics by 18 points. For girls the drop was clearly smaller: 10 points in science and only 2 points in mathematics.

-          The fall in the proportion of top-performing boys is the key reason for the drop in boys’ mean score. It is worrying that gender differences in achievement are evident at this early stage of schooling already. Our school does not seem to have fully succeeded in advancing gender equality, a task assigned to it by the core curriculum of Finnish basic education, maintain Vettenranta and Hiltunen. 

No increase in differences between schools

Concerns have been voiced in Finland that differences between schools have widened. According to this study, there was very little variation between Finnish primary schools; also, the differences had not widened compared to since 2011. Differences between classes in mean performance were slightly more prevalent; however, this could largely be explained by differences between mainstream and special needs education groups. In Finland, differences in achievement are largely rooted in student-level factors – even though in Finland variation in student performance was among the smallest among the participating countries.

-          At least at the fourth grade Finnish basic education is still in many ways equal. This can also be seen in that children’s achievement was not dependent on in which part of Finland they lived or whether they lived in a city or in the country, states University Researcher Kari Nissinen.

Room for improvement in attitudes

Compared to their peers in all other countries, Finnish children liked learning science the least; in mathematics, there were only three countries where students reported liking the subject less than in Finland. Finnish children also showed clearly below-average confidence in their abilities and felt less engaged in instruction by teachers. These motivational factors have a significant effect on achievement.

-          Bullying is one of the factors that affect achievement and lower motivation. In this study, Finnish students who were bullied weekly achieved clearly lower than their peers who were not bullied. In Finland, however, bullying at the fourth grade was among the least frequent among the countries assessed, says Associate Professor Juhani Rautopuro.

More attention to home resources

Some of the factors leading to differences in achievement at the fourth grade had arisen before school start. Children with good basic literacy and numeracy skills at the beginning of basic education performed clearly better than those whose skills were poorer. In effect, early basic skills were among the factors that best explained differences in achievement. However, the proportion of Finnish children with very good basic skills was only half the proportion of their counterparts in the top-performing Asian countries.

The development of early basic skills is largely affected by home resources and attitudes. In contrast, the widely debated issue of day care and how it should be arranged (kindergarten, preschool, home daycare) was not strongly related to achievement.

-          The TIMSS study shows that a significant number of the factors leading to differences in achievement emerge before children enter school and that school is unable to fully even out these inequalities. Parents should be aware of the effect attitudes, learning motivation and a school-friendly atmosphere have on children’s later development, they should read to their children and engage them in numeracy and literacy activities, suggests Vettenranta.

In Finland, TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) is conducted by the Finnish Institute for Educational Research, University of Jyväskylä, in collaboration with the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture. TIMSS is coordinated by IEA (The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement), an independent international cooperation. 49 countries participated in the TIMSS 2015 mathematics test and 47 countries in the science test. In Finland the tests were completed by 5,015 fourth graders from 158 schools. TIMSS assesses participating countries’ mathematics and science achievement with a special focus on curricula.

Further information

Finnish Institute for Educational Research:

Ministry of Education and Culture:

Jouni Vettenranta, Jenna Hiltunen, Kari Nissinen, Eija Puhakka, Juhani Rautopuro: Lapsuudesta eväät oppimiseen. Neljännen luokan oppilaiden matematiikan ja luonnontieteiden osaaminen. Kansainvälinen TIMSS-tutkimus Suomessa [Childhood as the stepping stone to learning. Fourth graders’ mathematics and science achievement. International TIMSS study in Finland]. (In Finnish only.) Koulutuksen tutkimuslaitos 2016. 90 p.  

The recording of the release event on November 29 (in Finnish only) can be viewed at

TIMSS 2015 and TIMMS Advanced 2015 International Results: