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Assessment And Diversity In Norwegian Schools

Citation: Nortvedt, G., Skedsmo, G., Wiese, E.,  and Gloppen, S. (2017). Assessment policies and culturally responsive assessment in Norwegian Schools. Oslo: University of Oslo
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This report comprises a note on assessment policies in the Norwegian educational system as well as a brief overview over compulsory education and the proportion of immigrant students in Norwegian schools. In addition, the first outcome of the national review of cultural responsive assessment practices in Norwegian schools is presented in the last section of the document.

Assessment policies and culturally responsive assessment in Norway

Compared to other countries in the Western world, Norway has been characterised as reluctant to implement monitoring devices and accountability policies. One interpretation is that ideologies behind such policies represent a break with values and the traditional notion of schooling. Equity is recognised as one of the distinguishing features of the Norwegian education model and the ideology has given rise to a comprehensive education system. This system emphasises equal opportunities and access to the educational system regardless of social background, gender, ethnicity and geographical location and no streaming according to abilities (Telhaug, Mediås, & Aasen, 2006). More than 97% of Norwegian students attend the public school system. Several national policies for educational assessment exist that are designed to assist schools in implementing equal opportunities for all students.

Compulsory school

Compulsory school comprises 7 years of primary and 3 years of lower secondary school. In total 97% of the Norwegian schools attend public school. All schools are inclusive, meaning students with special needs receive special education or adapted education within the local school. There is no streaming and students cannot redo a school year.

The Education Act

Traditionally, public schooling was regulated through the Education Act and the national curriculum. These defined the overall purposes of public schooling, as well as for the individual subjects {Sivesind, 2008 #1241;Bachmann, 2008 #1408}. Furthermore, heavy investments in teacher education have also been an important strategy to ensure the quality of public schooling. The Education Act represents a regulating tool and strong authoritative force, since it secures the individuals’ right to public education, and special needs education. It also includes requirements with regard to the formal qualifications of teachers and the responsibilities of the school, the municipalities and the governmental authorities to provide education for all students {The Education Act, 1998 #1536}.

Assessment for learning is a national policy in Norway, and is included in the Education act (ref). Four principles for assessment is highlighted in paragraph 3, stating that students should; 1) understand what to learn and what is expected of them (§ 3-1); 2) obtain feedback that provides information on the quality of their work or performance (§ 3-11); 3) be given advice on how to improve (§ 3-11); and 4) be involved in their own learning process and in self-assessment (§ 3-12) {Lovdata, 1998 #531}. Each principle is elaborated in the 2006 regulations accompanying the education act {Lovdata, 2006 #638}.

The national curriculum

The national curriculum can be characterised as an informative tool, but has an authoritative force because it is legally binding. The general ideological basis for the national curriculum is provided by the Core Curriculum for Primary and Secondary Education, while the Subject Curriculum gives directions for each of the subjects. With respect to economic means, the municipalities receive funding from the state in terms of block grants.

Introduction of a National Quality Assessment System and national testing

Before 2001 it was a general belief that the Norwegian education system held high quality first and foremost, due to heavy investments in input factors. In 2001, the Norwegians had their PISA shock very much the same way as the Germans (cf. Ertl, 2006) and the intermediate PISA performance as well as the evaluations of the education reforms of the 1990s were important in legitimising new assessment policies in the 2000s (Elstad & Sivesind, 2010). Until then, national testing had been seen as an alien element in Norwegian schools {Hertzberg, 2008 #1850}. There was also no strong tradition of utilising evaluation results to formulate educational policy or to improve development and learning processes in schools. Quality assessment systems existed in terms of school-based evaluations {Haug, 2002 #828;Lillejord, 2003 #1849} and a qualification system consisting of the examination system and overall assessment grades served as a sorting mechanism for further education and working life {Sivesind, 2008 #1241;Hopmann, 2003 #1629}. Nevertheless, national testing had been part of the educational debate since the OECD review of the Norwegian education system in 1988-89 when the reviewers raised questions about the documentation of educational quality (Skedsmo, 2009). Several policy documents and reports published during the 1990s and in the early 2000s suggested the need to pay more attention to learning processes and student outcomes and to establish assessment practices and systems to monitor educational quality (Skedsmo, 2009).

In the early 2000s, politicians were ready to try out national testing. It was supported by the Norwegian Parliament across the majority of the parties, and therefore also reflected a consensus among the politicians on the need for change in the education system. The first tests in Reading (Norwegian) and Mathematics in Years 4 and 10, and English reading in Year 10, were tried out in 2004. In 2005, national tests were introduced for Year 7 and the first year of upper secondary school, and included writing tests in Norwegian and English. However, the student union boycotted the tests, arguing that national test scores could be used to rank schools, an act that could possibly harm students’ learning. As a consequence of the boycott, national test results in upper secondary school were not published due to low response rates. The evaluation of this first round of testing showed, however, that the tests were not good enough and did not measure literacy in English and Norwegian writing in a reliable way. The tests were held back for one year in order for the test developers to improve their tests {Lie, 2005 #951;Eklof, 2012 #1848}. The Ministry of Education further decided to abolish the writing tests, following advice from the researchers that it would be too hard to develop reliable tests in writing. After improving validity and reliability, the tests were reintroduced in 2007. Due to widespread critique about publication of results and ranking of schools, it was decided the results should not be publicly accessible and the tests should be taken at the beginning of the school year (5th and 8th grades) to strengthen the tests’ formative aspects. Later on, the tests were also introduced in 9th grade in order to trace the progress of students’ performance from the 8th grade.

The purposes of NQAS and national testing have somehow changed over the years. The OECD (2011) describes the development of the NQAS in two phases. While the main focus in the first phase was to make actors at all administrative levels accountable for results achieved, the second phase accentuates data use for learning and improvement. In the policy rhetoric, however, formative purposes were from the beginning put forward, underscoring that the results of the national tests and other assessment tools included in NQAS were to be used for learning and development purposes on an individual as well as a system level {Skedsmo, 2009 #1490;Skedsmo, 2011 #1687}. At the same time, controlling and monitoring elements were concealed. Results from a national representative survey conducted among principals in 2005 showed that the principals perceived national testing and other tools included in NQAS as part of municipal controlling and monitoring of results and not relevant for improving students’ learning (Skedsmo, 2009, 2011). Other studies have also shown that teachers do not know how to use national test results to improve students’ learning {, 2009 #1043} and the question is whether the tests are designed for such purposes {Skedsmo, 2009 #1490}. The combination of the formative and summative purposes of national testing has further been criticized in two evaluations assigned by the Norwegian Directorate for Education and Training and two OECD reports {Allerup, 2009 #1684;Seland, 2013 #1782;Hopfenbeck, 2013 #1804;OECD, 2011 #1783}. Allerup and colleagues {, 2009 #1062} claim that national test results are used for control and accountability purposes, while screening tests are used formatively.

As a consequence, the formulated intentions have been revised by focusing on the use of the results on the different administrative levels in the school system and toning down the use of the results on the individual level {cf. \Seland, 2013 #1782}. Still, school leaders and teachers are encouraged to use the test results for formative purposes which indicate data use for organisational learning. This double function could imply a leeway for local authorities to decide which focus will be given most attention in using national test results. At the same time, it can create a possible conflict in balancing control and development elements related to data use. The evaluation of the latest reform, Knowledge Promotion (K06), shows great differences between municipalities with respect to the interpretation of assessment policies and the extent to which they implement control and monitoring elements in their quality management systems {Aasen, 2012 #1807}. The evaluation of the use of national tests indicates that school leaders and superintendents use national test results more than teachers and the focus is upon steering and control {Seland, 2013 #1782}. A critical issue related to data use is, however, that not all schools have the capacity to use and interpret the results {Aasen, 2012 #1807}, and the variation is often related to the size of the municipalities (Rambøll, 2013). In other words, it can be said that the assessment literacy level is not high enough in the school system and that smaller municipalities have greater challenges due to smaller administrations at the municipal level and also recruitment of teachers and school leaders.

In addition to national testing, the current version of the NQAS includes tools such as the School-leaving Examination and Craft Certificate which represent traditional forms of assessment within the Norwegian education system. As a part of the national evaluation system, this component is supposed to inform the authorities and the public about the level of student achievements at an aggregated level. For the individual student, this component is still a sorting mechanism in terms of providing information to society, employers and educational institutions pertaining to the achieved level of competence {The Norwegian Directorate for Education and Training, 2005 #1431}. Moreover, international comparative achievement studies, e.g. PISA, TIMSS, PIRLS, are included to evaluate and compare the level of achievement of Norwegian students with those of students in other countries. This information is to provide a basis for formulating the national educational policy, and to develop indicators for the national quality measurement (ibid.). Next, the use of mapping tests, which is called “kartleggingsmateriell” in Norwegian, aims to discover what the students below an identified national cut-score need in terms of individual support, adaptation and follow-up. Summative and formative assessment in terms of local tests, which in Norwegian is referred to as “karakter- og læringsstøttende prøver”, are intended to show the level of student achievement in order to improve learning for the individual student. At the same time, these local tests are part of the summative assessment in terms of the overall achievement grades {The Norwegian Directorate for Education and Training, 2005 #1431}. As a support for the schools and municipalities, a web-based service called the School Portal, is provided by the Norwegian Directorate of Education and Training. This service is to inform municipalities and schools about their results[1]. The Norwegian Directorate for Education and Training has also developed various materials to help teachers, school leaders and municipalities using in particular national test and mapping results for learning and development purposes. These materials are also included as a component of the NQAS (ibid.). Finally, state supervision of schools, which is delegated to the regional Educational Offices, is an important part of the national comprehensive evaluation system {The Norwegian Directorate for Education and Training, 2005 #1639}.

Assessment for Learning

Assessment for learning is a national policy, regulated by the Education Act (see above). The Norwegian Directorate for Education and Training is responsible for implementing national educational policies, and has developed a resource bank and offers extensive professional development opportunities ( ering/). Assessment for learning programme offered by the directorate has been evaluated by the OECD who found that much was lacking in the implementation of assessment for learning as a classroom practice {Hopfenbeck, 2013 #16}. {Nortvedt, 2016 #583@@author-year} propose that the uptake is delayed because training is too general, not focusing on and highlighting what is good assessment for learning practices in the different school subjects.

The use of grades

Norwegian primary school children are not graded, rather, formative assessment should be used (Lovdata, 2006) to provide teachers and parents with information about students’ learning and achievements. A written report card will be prepared by the class teacher twice a year and sent home with the students. In addition, teacher-parent conferences are institutionalized.

Grading is implemented at the lower secondary level. Grades range from 1 – 6, with 6 as the highest degree. The same grade system is used throughout secondary education (Lovdata, 2006). Students are mainly graded by their subject teacher with two exceptions; 1) national tests which are computer based with automated scoring implemented and 2) exams which are scored and graded by to independent external scorers. 

Students apply for further schooling based on teacher grades. If students are selected for an exam in a subject, teacher grades and exam grades are averaged.

Teacher Assessment

Norway has come quite short in implementing tools for teacher assessment – at least compared to countries like England or the USA. Teacher assessment or teacher evaluation is the most commonly used term on the topic. In literature we also find the terms teacher evaluation, assessment of teachers and teacher appraisal. As described in the previous, the Norwegian teachers working context was until the beginning of 2000 dominated by a relatively strong degree of autonomy, emphasis on a process-oriented view of learning, and broader social and humanistic aims in education (Slagstad 1998; Telhaug et al. 2007). The previously described PISA-shock in 2001 also led to a widespread debate about the role and quality of Norwegian teachers. Instructional practices were connected to student achievement results and the whole profession was suddenly up for examination. Although the NQAS from 2004 included teacher assessment as a part of a comprehensive framework for education assessment in Norway, the Royal Ministry of Education and Research did not come up with specific means or methods to be followed. The task of developing and implementing assessment systems for teachers were – according to the principal of decentralization – given to local authorities (counties and municipalities). In 2010 the Royal Ministry of Education and Research wanted to map the status on teacher assessment in Norway. The mapping results were published in the OECD report "Review of assessment and evaluation in education in Norway" (Nusche et al, 2011). The report recommended developing teacher assessment systems as an important step in establishing a comprehensive system of evaluation and assessment in Norway, and as a means to further professionalize the teaching profession. The report also pointed out that so far, very few municipalities have put in place adequate systems for quality assessment which may include evaluating teachers’ practice. Expectations of development of a feedback culture was clearly stated at national level, but was hindered by a lack of laws, regulations and national performance criteria or reference standards (ibid). The most common form of teacher feedback was found to be the employee interviews (ibid). Additionally, the international TALIS-report (2009, 2014) found that the culture of assessing teachers work in Norway was weak compared to other comparable countries. The survey also found that Norwegian teachers reported that they received less feedback on their work as compared with teachers in comparable countries.

To follow up these findings, the Norwegian Ministry of Education in 2013 ordered a systematic knowledge review on the field of teacher assessment. At the same time a working group was established within the GNIST-partnership (In 2009 the Ministry of Education designated a partnership for a comprehensive teacher commitment). The working group was led by prof. Eyvind Elstad at the University of Oslo, and in cooperation with Kunnskapssenter for utdanning (Knowledge Center for Education), their aim was to find out which forms of teacher assessment that could have a positive impact on the quality of education. The GNIST-working group consisted of representatives from research, students’ organizations, teacher unions, school leaders’ unions and school owners (represented by municipal central associations, KS). This cooperation led to discussions about which term to use, and teaching evaluation was chosen in consensus to denote evaluation specifically based on student’s feedback (Elstad et al, 2015). Reports from this work came in 2014, and suggested 5 principles for developing teacher assessment systems in Norway:

  1. The resources needed for conducting assessment must be available (expertise, economy, time) and the efforts must be balanced against what is expected of the activity.
  2. Assessment must be planned and conducted in a way that makes the assessed perceive the outcome of the assessment valid and reliable.
  3.  The assessment must be limited and concentrated towards certain aspects of the work, but still acknowledge that what is assessed is part of a larger context.
  4. Assessment should be conducted in ways that does not only measure achievements, but also elements that contribute positive effects on learning environment in general.
  5. Assessment generally has a major impact on practice in a field, so the assessment should be planned and implemented in such a way that the adverse effects of the assessment are minimized. (Lillejord et al. 2014)

In the Norwegian context, teacher assessment is relatively new, and so far there are not many empirical studies on how such practices are perceived by the teachers (Lillejord et al, 2014).  In addition, there is an unexplored field in the aspect of teachers’ trust in assessment practices (ibid), as well as how the teacher profession responds to accountability policies (Mausethagen 2013). However, along with new practices, research is emerging from the field. In one of very few articles on the subject Elstad, Lejonberg & Christophersen (2015) studied “Teacher resistance to teaching evaluation schemes in Norway”. They examined teachers’ stress related to being evaluated by students in upper secondary schools in Norway. Some of their findings suggested that there was a positive association between teachers’ stress and their perception of that evaluation was being used for control purposes. They also found that there was no significant relationship between stress and resistance to teaching evaluation in itself. They argue that teachers’ perceptions of teacher evaluation is shaped by individual school leadership and culture as important factors for building teacher trust, perception of the usefulness of student feedback and relative perceptions of stress (Elstad et al, 2015).

Migrant students in Norwegian compulsory schools

In the school year 2015/2016 approximately 14,3% of the students in compulsory education have an immigrant background (The Directorate for Education and Training, 2016). This number has been stable for some years. (The large number of children seeking asylum, coming to Norway in the last part of 2015, will not be visible in the national statistic until the 2017 reporting.)

Two groups of students are captured by the categorization Norwegian governments are applying; 1) students immigrating to Norway and who are born in a different country, and 2) students born in Norway but who has parents born in another country.

Approximately 43,000 students (7%) of the total student population have immigrant background and receive specially adapted Norwegian instruction. This number was expected to raise to 8% during 2016when the newly arrived asylum seekers come to school and should be verified in the next round of reporting. 

Outcome of the review on culturally responsive assessment

Searches for assessment and minority student or multilingual student or bilingual students or immigrants and Norway and school revealed in total 10 relevant papers, book chapters and thesis, 8 in Norwegian and 2 in English. The papers all focus on students’ linguistic or reading skills and how poor reading or linguistic skills cause difficulties when assessing minority students. Several of the papers refer to results from high stakes testing; either referring to results from national tests (Nasjonale kunnskapsprøver) or to PISA samples (Randen 2015; Hvitstendal, 2008, 2006; Özerk 2009; Kulbrandstad & Engen (2004), others refer to tests of Norwegian linguistic skills (e.g. Ringeriksmaterialet) used to map students’ comprehension of and reading abilities in Norwegian. Other studies are classroom studies of how students and teachers interact in multilingual classrooms. Özerk, 2001 observed how students and teachers verbal interaction and questioning in a classroom, whilst Tuveng and Wold (2008) discuss how students adhere to teachers expectations about subject specific vocabulary in Norwegian and how this masks problems with understanding (such as not asking for help). Askeland and Aamotsbakke looks at reading subject specific texts in Religious education and natural sciences in second language classrooms, and discuss the use of pre-reading strategies and dialogue (feedback) about textual content to ensure comprehension. In our searches we only located one paper looking at pedagogical strategies for enhancing student performance on the national reading tests (Özerk, 2009). Özerk discusses how he developed a model – the NEIS[2] model – for enhanced understanding and participation in developing reading skills in students 5-8 grade, and how the application of this model in one school lifted minority students’ result on the national reading comprehension test (Nasjonale kunnskapsprøver) from 5th till 8th grade.

The most surprising outcome of the review is perhaps what we have not found: none of the articles discuss how students with migrant backgrounds might be assessed, how culture/cultural background/cultural ways of knowing might be comprehended in an educational context, or how migrant students might feel about the assessment situations they experience as part of their schooling. This highlights the importance of the ACRAS project, focusing on aiding culturally responsive assessment in schools for migrant students.


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[1] The School Portal was launched as a separate web service system in 2004, but in 2007 the system was revised and re-launched as an integrated part of the website of the Norwegian Directorate of Education and Training:

[2] NEIS (Naturlig, Enaktiv, Ikonisk, Symbolsk) Natural, anActive, Iconic and Symbolic) representations to enhance vocabulary and reading strategies in 7-8 grade students.