There is no standardized testing in Finland! As an educator, I came to Finland wanting to understand this and see if it is really true. I have found that it is true but there is a BIG caveat. There is no standardized testing in basic education (compulsory education grades 1-9) and general upper secondary school (grades 10-12), but in grade 12 there is THE TEST. (Upper secondary school is roughly the equivalent of US high school but the students start when they are about 16 and finish when they are about 19. If high school in the U.S. started in 11th grade and went through 13th grade, it would be more like Finnish upper secondary school.)
In the late spring of a student's third and final year of upper secondary school, he or she must sit for matriculation exams. The matriculation examination is a national examination based on the national curriculum for the Finnish upper secondary school. Third year students (the Finnish teachers and principals call these students 3rd graders which makes me laugh) finish their school classes in February and have a reading period of 6 -12 weeks to study for the matriculation exams. Each student must pass 4 subject exams to graduate from high school. One exam must be their mother tongue (Finnish or Swedish) language and literature. (Swedish speaking Finns make up 5.6 % or 300,000 people according to information on the website of the Embassy of Finland to the Hague. All students in grades 1-9 in Finland study Swedish as well at Finnish language.) One exam must be their second national language. Students choose the other exam subjects and how many exams they will take based on their coursework in upper secondary and what they intend to study at University. There are 12 exams subject areas and they are: second national language (Finnish or Swedish); Foreign language: English, German, Russian, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Latin; Mathematics; Sciences and humanities: general studies, such as history, religion, physics, chemistry, biology, psychology and philosophy. According to an upper secondary school principal in Jyavaskyla who I spoke to, it is rare for a student to take all 12. He said the average is 6-8.
University admission requirements are different for different subjects and careers but all require matriculation exams. For example, to be a doctor (and begin studies right after upper secondary school) a student would need to plan from the start of upper secondary school to take chemistry, physics, biology and advanced math courses so he or she can score well on the matriculation exams. A student who wants to be a journalist would need to take more language, writing and history classes to score well on those subject exams.
It is important to note that Finland has a "no dead end" education system. Students of all ages, including adults, can attend academic, vocational or applied science institutions to start new careers or tweak existing expertise. If a student is studying art in university and realizes they want to be a doctor, they can find a place to study what they need to and pursue that goal. Higher education is tuition free for Finnish citizens.
One of the most interesting differences that I and my fellow Fulbrighters see in students is a willingness to do the class work and homework even if it won't be graded. We've asked students about this. The response is: "I need to know this so I will do the work to learn it" and "I know I won't pass this class if I don't do the work so I do it and I don't want to do this class again." Ultimately, they want to score well on their matriculation exams so they can move forward with work or schooling. Similar to students in the U.S., Finnish students experience stress around school, the matriculation exams and university acceptance. Teachers, counselors and principals have said that the stress is increasing.
There is another important component to learning and the school/work-career relationship to consider. From what I understand, getting a job in Finland without having any training is not possible. I asked someone about construction workers and they said that a person can not walk up to a construction site and get a job as a laborer. A construction worker must complete a vocational program for building trades before a company will employ them. I think this is similar in other areas of employment that in the U.S. that have low barriers to entry like restaurant work. Really different than the U.S. As a result, students understand that there is no real pathway to a career without completing some form of schooling beyond basic education (grades 1 to 9) so doing the work in school matters.
I am a high school art teacher from Boulder Valley School District in Colorado studying craft education in Jyvaskyla, Finland. I am in Finland through a grant from the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching program and the Fulbright Finland Foundation.