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Why Iceland Evaluates Its Students' Self-esteem

What American schools might learn from researchers in Iceland about how testing not only literacy and math, but the emotional lives of children.

What American schools might learn from researchers in Iceland about how to test not only literacy and math skills, but the emotional lives of children.

Over the last few years, Iceland has gone from economic boom to bust and is back on the upswing. All of these rapid changes have had drastic effects on lifestyle, which everyone assumed would trickle down to the well-being of the nation's children. Sadly, it's historically been difficult to track.


Luckily, since Iceland is in the European Economic Area as well as an OECD member, every three years member countries are required to take part in PISA, a standardized set of questions that test a student's ability and capacity to continue learning throughout life. In addition to testing academic abilities like literacy and math, it also tests factors such as enjoyment of reading and self-worth, among many other things.

This is a great tool to get a baseline and compare between nations, but it suffers from other issues. Namely, that only 15-year-olds take the test and do so at the end of the school year. In Iceland, as in many countries, this is the age at which they are finishing compulsory
education and move from compulsory education to college level. Any major issues found in the months after testing are no longer applicable because those students are long gone, making intervention and change difficult to manage.

We have been focusing on closing the feedback loop between discovering problems and intervention. Taking a page from the business world, we looked at how many companies are designing and building a product through several small iterative cycles rather than a long and drawn out one. Having many smaller cycles of development has plenty of advantages, but the
main one is that problems are spotted early and can be addressed sooner.

Using this approach, we built software that allows participating schools in Iceland to upload their student list at the beginning of the school year and each month, we randomly select a smaller representative set and administer a short online survey. Each school is able to get a data point on their progress in engagement of students, their well-being and school ethos, as well as compare themselves to a national average within Iceland.

So far, the results have been amazing. Previously, let's say a school had a bullying problem and might might think their situation was typical—that boys will be boys and girls will be girls. Now, schools can see how much of a bullying problem they really do have, compare it to the average, and see how it develops over time. The next step then becomes instituting policies to reduce problems.

Along with each data point, we are able to break down the information in further detail. Once a critical mass of students have taken the survey to make it both anonymous and statistically robust, we break down the information by gender, grade, and gender within grade. For instance, boys' enjoyment of sports constantly stays high, whereas girls' interest declines with age and while boys' self-esteem says high across all grade levels, for girls it tends to drop dramatically.

This information has also proven to be extremely valuable when it comes to deciding how school funds are to be spent. Recently, to address the problem of boys underperforming in school, the simple answer has been to throw more money at the problem. While this is certainly a noble solution, what is missed in the finding is that levels of anxiety, depression,
and bullying are much, much higher in girls than in boys, but because it isn't measured as a GPA on a report card, it's commonly overlooked. An entire generation of young women is leaving compulsory school with low morale, but no one is paying attention. Possible efforts to increase students' sense of belonging within school will not only cost less but also result in fewer cases of bullying. Knowing how the different psychometric values connect and tie together allows you to see the bigger picture.

This is the third school year where we have been running this survey in Iceland. As more and more schools use the system, the better the results become. As schools self-evaluate and improve, the national average also increases, putting more pressure on lagging schools to improve the quality of life for students in their institutions. In the end, students are the real winners as the quality of the schools steadily improves.

Illustration by Junyi Wu

Brian Suda, based in Reykjavik, Iceland, is part of a small company called Skólapúlsinn, which focuses on educational testing and research. His own little patch of internet is where many of his past projects and crazy ideas can be found.

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