Posted on April 13, 2011

Low Marks for Educating Kids With Immigrant Backgrounds

Jennifer Buley, Copenhagen Post, April 7, 2011

Despite concerted efforts by the Education Ministry to improve its ‘Danish as a second language’ programme, the recently-released Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) Ethnic 2009 study shows that the academic gap between kids with immigrant backgrounds and kids with Danish heritage has remained roughly the same since the first Pisa Ethnic assessment in 2000.

“We were actually really surprised when we saw the results,” Niels Egelund, the chairman of the Pisa consortium and co-author of the Pisa Ethnic 2009 report told Politiken newspaper. “It is dreadful that there has not actually been any positive development when we look at averages in the three subject areas.”

In the decade since the first report, students with immigrant backgrounds made little headway in reading, lost ground in natural sciences, and stayed roughly in place in maths in comparison with native Danish-speaking classmates.

According to the 2009 report, some 38 percent of students with Danish as a second language finished 9th grade “lacking sufficient reading skills” compared to 13 percent of students with Danish as their mother tongue.

Students with immigrant backgrounds scored as though they were two years in school behind their native-speaking classmates.

Apart from the bad news for the students themselves, the results are an embarrassment for the current Liberal-Conservative government, because the assessed students began first grade when the current government came to power in 2001.

Using a phrase that requires no translation, the education editor of Politiken newspaper, Jacob Fuglsang, called the assessment “en stinker” for the government.

“The kids with immigrant backgrounds who were assessed began school at about the same time that the government came into power, so it is hard to duck the responsibility,” Fuglsang wrote.

Even more troubling, first- and second-generation Danes fared worse on the Pisa 2009 assessment than the same groups in other Nordic countries.

Compared to Sweden and Norway, Denmark had the highest share of second-generation students judged ‘weak readers’, and the lowest share of students with immigrant backgrounds who scored the highest marks.

The assessment’s writers attribute about one third of the reading score gap to students’ socio-economic backgrounds, and two thirds to “immigration factors” such as official integration policies, limited job opportunities and prejudice. Newly-appointed education minister Troels Lund Poulsen acknowledged that the results were troubling and disappointing overall, but underscored that there was at least one area of improvement.

“The number of students with immigrant backgrounds and insufficient reading ability to successfully complete primary school fell by eleven percent since 2000,” Poulsen said.

Other positive points from the report were that second-generation Danish students scored higher than first-generation Danes and students with ethnic backgrounds from Turkey, Pakistan and the former Yugoslav republics scored highest among all students with Danish as a second language.

At the end of the month the education minister is due to present a new national action plan for what should be done to improve the academic performance of children from immigrant communities.

Egelund already has a suggestion for the education minister: “I think that we ought to introduce compulsory pre-school from the age of three, with a focus on language stimulation. Because when kids start school with very limited vocabularies, they have no chance of keeping up.”