Immigration contributed to poor Pisa scores

Part of the decline in Sweden’s scores in international education surveys may be because immigrant students have a harder time here.

There was a considerable outcry in Sweden when the country showed declining results in the international comparison of education results, Pisa. But a new report indicates that one significant reason for the poor showing might have been immigration.

The new study was carried out by Gabriel Heller Sahlgren of the Research Institute of Industrial Economics. He says that nearly one-third of Sweden’s decline in the Pisa survey has been because of poor scores among immigrant children. But he also underlines that this is only one of several factors.

“Students with a Swedish background have also done worse in the Pisa survey, and this study of the background of students doesn’t explain everything,” he says. “We don’t know what caused the decline among the students with a Swedish background. There are many theories, but it is very difficult to see which factors have contributed. So if we can simply remove 30 percent of the decline by adjusting the study selection, that is a very strong factor.”

Sweden’s results in the Pisa survey have gotten worse and worse since the first report 15 years ago. Most recently Swedish 15 year olds did worse than the OECD average, and finished below countries like Spain, Hungary, and Slovenia.

Gabriel Heller Sahlgren’s study compared the scores of students with Swedish parents and who speak Swedish at home, to the overall results between the years 2000 and 2012. He’s worked out that the decline among students with Swedish parents was 29 percent.

The National Agency for Education has previously said that the scores of students with foreign backgrounds have only slightly contributed to the overall Swedish decline. Anders Almgren, vice president of the National Union of Teachers, is cautious about what can be said about the effects of immigration, but confirms that previous studies have indicated that students with foreign backgrounds often score worse in the Pisa tests.

“Yes, there’s obviously an effect on the Pisa results,” he says. “And Sahlgren is certainly right to say immigration is a contributing cause. But I don’t believe it has any great effect,” he goes on.

In his report, Gabriel Heller Sahlgren makes a number of proposals to improve the Swedish Pisa results. This includes more state aid for schools with poor scores and more time in the classroom with teachers rather than students working on their own, as studying by themselves puts those with a foreign background at a disadvantage.

Anders Almgren of the National Union of Teachers agrees:

“I’m still an active teacher, and I’m sure that students with poor scores need more class time with teachers than do other students,” he says. “It’s not just resources that are needed, but also another way of working as a teacher.”

Almgren also says that more teachers need access to continued education, so they are better equipped to teach newly arrived students:

“There are many teachers who don’t know how to instruct new arrivals to Sweden, and I’m not just talking about Swedish for Immigrants courses,” he says. “When you get a new student in the class, who hasn’t lived that long in Sweden, you have to adjust your teaching so that it will work better. Many teachers have not received that kind of continued training, since the municipalities don’t make it a priority.”