Blog: The Educated Reporter

Ranking High Schools — in Finland?

A waterway in Helsinki, Finland, a country frequently held up as an international standout for its public education system. (Creative Commons/Dennis Jarvis)

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.

In 2011, my boss asked me to help her create a more ambitious high school ranking than anything Finland had ever seen. I had just been promoted from education reporter to editor of domestic news at the Finnish News Agency, which is like the Associated Press of Finland except on a smaller scale. (Since there are only five million Finns, all things Finnish are small scale.)

My boss, the editor-in-chief of news at the news 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 the Neighborhood

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 reputation’s 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 1990’s – at a cost so high only the biggest news outlets could afford it.

Enrollment Policies Matter

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.

But it did. In the end I was able to find the right person at the Ministry of Education and access the data.To this day it puzzles me why none of his colleagues knew about it.

My boss and I would joke that the man I finally found probably had his office in the basement and was a keeper of Finnish education secrets so deep that his very existence was kept from his colleagues.

In reality I was most likely the first person ever to show any interest in that particular data, and that’s why hardly anyone knew about it.

Too Close to Call?

When we finally had the data we needed, we started publishing our rankings twice a year.

We would compare the grade-point averages of the students of each school to the average matriculation exam results to see how much the students’ performance changed over the three years of high school. Based on the comparison results we would list the schools from best to worst.

Soon we ran into another problem.

After seeing the first few rounds of results, we noticed that the differences between schools were really small. In fact, they were so small that it seemed a bit unfair to publish a list and suggest  some schools were better than others.

Our rankings are far from perfect and many have criticized them. At the same time, many Finns have thanked us for drawing public attention to the excellent work done by teachers in schools that don’t get the best students.

We keep publishing the rankings twice a year.

Our main goal was to get Finns talking about what makes a high school excellent, and to question rankings based solely on the graduation exam. In that, we have succeeded.

We set out to break a taboo and rate the schools – and ended up creating more evidence to support the officials’ view that there’s no point ranking Finnish schools because they really are all equal.

Maria Annala has worked as journalist in Finland for nearly 10 years, covering education and other issues as a reporter and editor. She recently took a leave of absence from her post as an editor of domestic and foreign news at the Finnish News Agency, and is working as a freelance journalist in Boston. Maria spoke at EWA’s December 2015 seminar, Beyond the Border: Covering U.S. Education in a Global Context.



Have a question, comment or concern for the Educated Reporter? Contact Emily Richmond. Follow her on Twitter @EWAEmily.

Read other Educated Reporter articles.