For much of the 21st century, Finland was one of the very top performers in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), an ongoing study administered by OECD every three years that tests the reading, maths and science literacy of 15-year-olds in 73 countries.

In the most recent PISA results, Finland’s scores dropped in all three categories: eleven points in science, five points in reading and ten in maths. Among the other top-performing countries, only Vietnam showed a similar drop. All the other top-tier countries’ scores stayed the same or increased slightly. Finland is now ranked twelfth in math, fifth in science and fourth in reading.

For Finland, that’s a big drop. Finland has topped the PISA rankings in 2000, 2003 and 2006, and consistently ranked near the top in other years.

There are ongoing debates about what PISA results actually say about education systems in different countries and how seriously it should be regarded. Finland’s high-achieving students were seen as an example to be emulated and were perhaps unique among the top achievers in PISA as its education system has many quirks which other countries could imitate: a late start to schooling for children, more free time during the school day, smaller classroom sizes, and strict rules and limits for private schools.

So what happened?

In 2013, when the first decline appeared, John Bangs, chair of the OECD trade union advisory committee’s education working group, said:

“My belief is that Finland and Sweden are suffering from the strains of declining economies and the social pressures this causes.”

In an interview with The Washington Post, Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator and leading figure in education policy, and author of the best-selling book “Finish Lessons 2.0: What can the world learn from education change in Finland” offered the following:

“In one way, Finland remains one of the highest-performing school systems in the world. I would argue that Finland also continues to be an interesting example for others because in many ways its school system is so different compared to Japan or Canada, both doing very well in PISA. What we need to underline here is that PISA tells us only a small part of what happens in education in any country. Most of what Finland does, for example, is not shown in PISA at all. It would be short-sighted to conclude only looking at PISA scores where good educational ideas and inspiration might be found. The country’s early childhood education, highly regarded teaching profession, strong focus on well-being and whole child development, and alternative models of accountability still continue to be useful areas of interest for others.”

It’s also worth noting that Finland’s high PISA rankings had caused some controversy amongst Finnish educators.  For example, in 2005, more than two hundred Finnish academics issued a warning about complacency as a result of the PISA success.

Everything is relative, and Finland is still ranked highly, and is the highest performing European country in reading and science. The domination of PISA Rankings by Asian countries looks complete, with countries from the region holding the top places in math, science and reading – but as those Finnish academics warned, there are risks for countries who get complacent.