The Place Where Ranking Schools Proves They’re Actually Equal

In Finland you’re not supposed to wonder—let alone ask out loud—if one school is better than another. That’s because all Finnish schools are designed to be equal.

We Finns are very proud of our equal education system. In fact, education is the one positive thing Finland is known for all around the world. Our results in global assessments of 15-year-olds have won us international attention a small nation rarely receives.

The strong ideology of equality doesn’t always make life easy for us Finnish education reporters. We feel, for example, we should rank the nation’s high schools even though the government doesn’t want us to.

Education Writers Association

My boss, the editor in chief of news at the agency, is also a former education reporter. She had been dreaming of the new high-school ranking for a long time. The project sounded very interesting, but also very challenging.

In Finland, ranking schools is unthinkable to educators and education officials. Especially when it comes to elementary and middle schools, Finnish education officials have a clear stand: It’s always best for any child to go to the neighborhood school closest to their home.

The idea behind this policy is that if we started believing some schools were better than others, those schools would attract the best teachers and the most advantaged students. The rest of the schools would see their reputations decline and have a hard time keeping, and recruiting, good teachers. That, in turn, could harm the quality of many schools.

That’s why education officials in Finland believe that ranking schools would do more harm than good.

As a Finn, I feel very strongly that everyone should get equal opportunities in life. I believe one good way to try to accomplish that is to have equally good schools available for everyone, and to avoid letting some schools get a better reputation than others.

As a journalist, however, I’m not at all happy with the idea of officials telling me not to seek information. I find it essential that any question can be asked.

So when my boss asked for my help, I said yes.

Comparing high schools was not unheard of in Finland at the time we began our project. Some of the biggest newspapers published, twice a year, a simple ranking based on one factor: the results of the only standardized test all Finnish students ever take.

Getting the information needed just for that simple ranking was difficult.

To graduate from high school, Finnish students must pass a standardized test we call the matriculation exam. The assessment is developed and overseen by the Matriculation Exam Board, whose members are appointed by the Finnish Ministry of Education. The members are all specialists in education and in the subjects tested by the exam. The topics covered by this wide-ranging assessment include math, writing, English and other foreign languages, history, and biology.

The Matriculation Exam Board used to deny journalists all access to the exam data. It was only after a long struggle by an education journalist at the biggest Finnish newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, that the data became available for media companies in the mid 1990s—at a cost so high only the biggest news outlets could afford it.

The Joyful, Illiterate Kindergartners of Finland

In the early years of the new millennium, it became a tradition that continues to this day for those outlets to publish high-school rankings every time new data was available.

My boss felt those rankings were unfair, since they weren’t taking into account the fact that some schools took in better-prepared students to begin with.

That’s because, in Finland, students apply to high school based on their middle-school grades.

In the so-called big cities in Finland, young people don’t usually choose their high school based on location. Some high schools are considered better than others and the good students want to go to the best schools.

Outside the urban centers, young people usually apply to the high school nearby, because all the other ones are so far away.

That means in the biggest cities we have high schools for straight-A students, others for B students, and so on. But outside of these cities, each high school typically enrolls all kinds of students, from overachievers to those at risk of dropping out.

We wanted to find data that would allow us to compare the starting level of students in each school to their matriculation-exam results. That turned out to be a lot harder than I expected.

Almost all the schools in Finland are public, and the whole application process is centralized, so it was clear that at some point someone had all the grade information we were looking for.

I made a lot of phone calls to different sorts of education officials and statistic officials. No one seemed to know anything about the data I wanted. They tried to help and often suggested I try other colleagues, but many of them suspected the data didn’t exist.

Education Writers Association.