The Finnish PISA results reveal: Young people with an immigrant background clearly behind other students in mathematics (15th August 2014)

Many do not reach the minimum skill level

The number of immigrants in Finland has greatly increased during the past decades. So far, however, there has been little research evidence available on their learning outcomes. Now, together with the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, the Finnish Institute for Educational Research (University of Jyväskylä) has published a report about the results of the 15 year-old students with an immigrant background in the PISA 2012 assessment in Finland.

In the light of the PISA results, the learning outcomes of the young people with an immigrant background, when compared to other students in Finland, are extremely worrying. Their performance in mathematics was significantly weaker than that of other students’. On average, translating the test scores into an educational time scale, the first generation immigrants were lagging approximately two school years behind and the second generation immigrants slightly less behind the other students.

- What is especially worrying is that a large proportion, about a half of the first generation immigrant students, failed to reach the minimum skill level in mathematics, says researcher Heidi Harju-Luukkainen from the Finnish Institute for Educational research.

The results were similar in science, reading literacy, and problem solving performances. The second generation immigrant students performed slightly better than the first generation immigrant students. It was also alarming that the students with an immigrant background were more frequently late or absent from classes.

More support for language learning

Those students with an immigrant background who had come to Finland from nearby countries, who had been born in Finland, or who had arrived in Finland before the school age performed the best in mathematics. The performance level of students with an immigrant background was approximately the same in all the Nordic Countries.

In Finland, the differences in the mathematics performance in general can be explained by the following factors: self-conception for mathematics, confidence in one’s own mathematical competence, and anxiety towards mathematics. However, these factors did not affect students with an immigrant background as much as they affected other students. It seems, therefore, that there must be some other factors involved, factors that are not known or are not measured in the PISA study.

According to Harju-Luukkainen, one of these factors is definitely a student’s proficiency level in the teaching language of the school. Thus, it is very important to support the students’ knowledge of their mother tongue as well as the teaching language of the school, because together these two languages form an essential basis for learning. Do the young people receive adequate support to develop their language skills and thereby gain prerequisites for upper secondary education? In the changing society, teachers need in-service training in multicultural education, communication, and issues related to bilingualism, multilingualism, and supporting students with an immigrant background.

The results also showed some positive aspects. The students with an immigrant background had less anxiety towards mathematics than other students, and stronger motivation. Moreover, they experienced the relationship between teachers and students more positive than others did, their attitude towards school was more positive, and the sense of belonging to the school community was stronger.

Success at school is a key to successful future

The PISA 2012 results suggest that when leaving the lower secondary school, the young people with an immigrant background are more poorly equipped than others to act as full members of society.

- Learning outcomes bear a connection to the student’s future prospects. Hence, it really matters how students are doing at school and how well-equipped they eventually are to move on to further studies or to the working life. Early childhood education, primary and secondary education form a continuum where each child and young person should have a chance to reach up to their own full potential, summarises Harju-Luukkainen.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a triennial international survey which aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students. To date, students representing more than 70 economies have participated in the assessment.

Further information:

The complete report (in Finnish only) is available at