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Educational Performance in Swedish Shools is Plummeting – What Are the Facts?​

Henrekson, Magnus and Sebastian Jävervall (2017). Educational Performance in Swedish Shools is Plummeting – What Are the Facts?​. Stockholm: The Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences, IVA.

Magnus Henrekson, Sebastian Jävervall

This report contains an analysis of all the relevant studies that measure educational performance in Swedish schools until September 2016. Its main focus is a comparison of Swedish pupils’ attainment levels with the averages of other countries, based on the results of the international PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS assessments.

Sweden performed relatively well in the earliest assessments conducted around the turn of the century. Swedish lower secondary school pupils performed significantly better than the average in both PISA and TIMSS. In addition, Swedish grade 4 pupils performed the best out of all countries that participated in the 2001 PIRLS study on reading literacy.

In the 2000s, Swedish lower and upper secondary school pupils’ scores began to fall in every subject and assessment apart from one, which suggests both a long-term and substantial weakening of the Swedish school system.

The decline is large both in absolute and relative terms. At the same time, there is strong evidence of significant grade inflation due to the fact that, as average final year grades at compulsory school increase, scores in the international assessments simultaneously fall.

This downward trend in attainment is a result of deteriorating scores across the board, from the highest-performing pupils to those that get the lowest scores. Consistently, the decline is greatest at the end of the period. The decline in reading literacy and science in PISA is particularly great among those who perform the least well, and the steepest part of the decline occurs in the 2012 PISA study.

Grade 9 pupils, who participated in the 2012 PISA study, are the only ones who followed the 1994 curriculum, which involved major changes in terms of subject content, the grading system, and the role of the teacher. PISA scores, particularly in reading and science, suggest that these changes have affected the weakest pupils the most.

At the same time, it is important to emphasise that a significant part of the decline has been driven by a deterioration in the performance of the very best pupils. In PISA mathematics for grade 9, for example, the relative decline in performance is greatest for the highest percentile group. It is also evident that a smaller percentage of Swedish pupils are achieving the higher proficiency levels and that the scores of the top five percent of pupils are declining.

The decline among the top five percent is particularly large in mathematics; in 2012, the Swedish scores were a full standard deviation below the average of the top five percent in the OECD and only a tiny proportion of Swedish pupils achieve the average obtained by the top five percent of the best-performing countries.