Sweden's Scores Plunge in International Tests

In Sweden, forget stock prices: it's plunging test scores that are causing a national panic. Once 11th in the world in science rankings, Sweden's scores on international eighth-grade tests fell 42 points between 1995 and 2007—one of the worst declines among the 35 nations tested. Reading and math scores showed the same disturbing trend.

Some experts say demographic shifts may be contributing to the plunge. Immigrants have increased from 9 percent of Sweden's population in 1990 to 12 percent currently, with many refugees coming from places like Somalia and Iraq. Families are moving away from schools where the newcomers are concentrated, and teachers aren't trained to deal with the increasingly segregated system.

But others say a more plausible explanation is Sweden's lax education philosophy. Swedish children aren't graded on their work until the eighth grade, and there are few curriculum standards. Sweden's education minister, Jan Björklund, says this easygoing attitude is changing in response to the country's dismal test performances. The ministry is developing a new, rigorous national curriculum, and by 2011, teachers will give grades starting in sixth grade. Younger students will also share the sting of failure if they perform poorly: new national tests, from the third grade on, will determine which students are held back until they can improve their scores.