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Frequently Asked Questions

In addition to the following questions about PISA, more FAQs about international assessments are available at: http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/international/faqs.asp

  1. What subject areas are assessed in PISA?
  2. What are the components of PISA?
  3. How many U.S. schools and students participate in PISA?
  4. How does PISA select a representative sample of students?
  5. Which countries participate in PISA?
  6. How does the performance of U.S. students in mathematics and science on PISA compare with U.S. student performance on TIMSS?
  7. When is PISA data collected in the United States?
  8. Where can I get a copy of the U.S. PISA reports?
  9. When is PISA next scheduled to be administered?
  10. How is the OECD Test for Schools related to PISA?
  11. How does PISA differ from other international assessments?
  12. Are PISA scores of individual students reported or available for analysis?
  13. Can you report PISA results for states?

1. What subject areas are assessed in PISA?

PISA measures student performance in mathematics, reading, and science literacy. Conducted every 3 years, each PISA data cycle assesses one of the three core subject areas in depth (considered the major domain), although all three core subjects are assessed in each cycle (the other two subjects are considered minor subject areas for that assessment year). Assessing all three subjects every 3 years allows countries to have a consistent source of achievement data in each of the three subjects while rotating one area as the primary focus over the years. More information on the PISA assessment frameworks can be found at: www.oecd.org/pisa/pisaproducts.

Mathematics was the major subject area in 2012, as it was in 2003, since each subject is a major subject area once every three cycles. In 2012, mathematics, science, and reading literacy were assessed primarily through a paper-and-pencil assessment, and problem solving was administered via a computer-based assessment. In addition to these core assessments, education systems could participate in optional paper-based financial literacy and computer-based mathematics and reading assessments. The United States participated in these optional assessments.

PISA administration cycle

Assessment year 2000 2003 2006 2009 2012 2015
Subjects assessed READING
Mathematics
Science
Reading
MATHEMATICS
Science
Problem solving
Reading
Mathematics
SCIENCE
READING
Mathematics
Science
Reading
MATHEMATICS
Science
Problem solving
Financial literacy
Reading
Mathematics
SCIENCE
Collaborative
problem solving
Financial literacy

NOTE: Reading, mathematics, and science literacy are all assessed in each assessment cycle of the Program for International Assessment (PISA). A separate problem-solving assessment was administered in 2003 and 2012. The subject in all capital letters is the major subject area for that cycle. Problem solving was assessed on computer in 2012. As of PISA 2015, PISA will be administered entirely on computer. Financial literacy is an optional assessment for countries.

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2. What are the components of PISA?

Assessments
PISA 2012 consisted of a paper-based assessment of students’ mathematics, science, and reading literacy and a computer-based assessment of problem solving. Countries could also opt to participate in an assessment of financial literacy and computer-based assessments in mathematics and reading. In each participating school, sampled students sat for a two-hour paper-based assessment. A subsample returned for a second session in which they completed a 40-minute computer-based assessment of problem solving, mathematics or reading, or a combination of these subjects.

Questionnaires
In 2012, students completed a 30-minute student questionnaire providing information about their background, attitudes towards mathematics, and learning strategies. In addition, the principal of each participating school completed a 30-minute school questionnaire providing information on the school’s demographics and learning environment. PISA also includes a contextual questionnaire for the students’ parents or guardians, though the United States has not administered this questionnaire. The PISA questionnaires used in the United States are available at: http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/pisa/questionnaire.asp.

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3. How many U.S. schools and students participate in PISA?

Assessment year Number of participating students Number of participating schools School response rate (percent) Overall student response rate (percent)
Original schools With substitute schools
2000 3,700 145 56 70 85
2003 5,456 262 65 68 83
2006 5,611 166 69 79 91
2009 5,233 165 68 78 87
2012 6,111 161 67 77 89

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4. How does PISA select a representative sample of students?

Step 1

To provide valid estimates of student achievement and characteristics, PISA selects a sample of students that represents the full population of 15-year-old students in each participating country or education system. This population is defined internationally as 15-year-olds (15 years and 3 months to 16 years and 2 months at the beginning of the testing period) attending both public and private schools in grades 7-12. Each country or education system submits a sampling frame to the consortium of organizations responsible for the implementation of PISA 2012 internationally. Westat, a survey research firm in Rockville, Maryland, contracted by the OECD, then validates each country or education system’s frame.

Step 2

Once a sampling frame is validated, Westat draws a scientific random sample of a minimum of 150 schools from each frame with two replacement schools for each original school, unless there are less than 150 schools, in which case all schools would be sampled. A minimum of 50 schools were sampled for benchmarking participants (e.g., U.S. states that participated in 2012). The list of selected schools, both original and replacement, is delivered to each education system’s PISA national center. Countries and education systems do not draw their own samples.

Step 3

Each country/education system is responsible for recruiting the sampled schools. They begin with the original sample and only use the replacement schools if an original school refuses to participate. In accordance with PISA guidelines, replacement schools are identified by assigning the two schools neighboring the sampled school in the frame as substitutes to be used in instances where an original sampled school refuses to participate. Replacement schools are required to be in the same implicit stratum (i.e., have similar demographic characteristics) as the sampled school. A minimum participation rate of 65 percent of schools from the original sample of schools is required for a country or education system’s data to be included in the international database.

Step 4

After schools are sampled and agree to participate, students are sampled. Each country/education system submits student listing forms containing all age-eligible students for each of their schools to ACER, an education research firm in Australia and the lead organization of the PISA 2012 international consortium, for student level sampling.

Step 5

ACER carefully reviews the student lists and uses sophisticated software to perform data validity checks to compare each list against what is known of the schools (e.g., expected enrollment, gender distribution) and PISA eligibility requirements (e.g., grade and birthday ranges). The selected student samples are then sent back to each national center. Unlike school sampling, students are not sampled with replacement.

Step 6

Schools inform students of their selection to participate on assessment day. Student participation must be at least 80 percent for a country’s/education system’s data to be reported by the OECD.

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5. Which countries participate in PISA?

Countries and education systems within countries participate in PISA.

  • PISA 2000: 43 countries and education systems participated (11 of these administered PISA 2000 in 2001/2002).
  • PISA 2003: 41 countries and education systems participated.
  • PISA 2006: 57 countries and education systems participated.
  • PISA 2009: 75 countries and education systems participated (10 of these administered PISA 2009+ in 2010).
  • PISA 2012: 65 countries and education systems participated.

The list of countries and education systems that participated in each PISA cycle is available at: http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/pisa/countries.asp.

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6. How does the performance of U.S. students in mathematics and science on PISA compare with U.S. student performance on TIMSS?

Before talking about how the TIMSS results compare with the PISA results, it is important to recognize the ways in which TIMSS and PISA differ.

While TIMSS and PISA both assess mathematics and science, they differ with respect to which students are assessed, what is measured, and who the competition is.

  • TIMSS assesses younger students (4th- and 8th-graders) on their knowledge of specific mathematics and science topics and cognitive skills that are closely linked to the curricula of the participating countries. PISA assesses older students (15-year-old students) in mathematics literacy and science literacy, or how well they can apply their knowledge and skills to problems set in real-world contexts.
  • While there is some overlap in content, each assessment may have unique topics or different emphases and the nature of the items may differ as well, given their different focuses.
  • Not all countries have participated in TIMSS and PISA, or in all administrations of either assessment. Both TIMSS and PISA include developed and developing countries; however, TIMSS has a larger proportion of developing countries participating than PISA does because PISA is principally a study of the member countries of the OECD—an intergovernmental organization of developed countries. All 34 OECD countries participate in PISA, but not all of those countries participate in TIMSS.

On TIMSS, students at 4th and 8th grades performed above the TIMSS scale average in both mathematics and science, unlike what we see in PISA in which—in 2012—U.S. 15-year-olds performed below (in mathematics) or not measurably different than (in science) the OECD averages. Five East Asian countries and education systems (Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong-China, Chinese Taipei, and Japan) outperformed the United States in mathematics and science in both TIMSS and PISA.

  • Mathematics. The 2011 TIMSS results showed that U.S. students’ average mathematics score for both 4th-graders and 8th-graders were above the TIMSS scale average, which is set at 500 for every administration of TIMSS at both grades. At the 8th grade, students in 6 countries and 5 states or provinces had higher mathematics scores than U.S. students on average; this includes Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong-China, Chinese Taipei, Japan, Russian Federation, Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Quebec.
  • Science. The 2011 TIMSS results showed that U.S. students’ average science scores for both 4th-graders and 8th-graders were above the TIMSS scale average, which is set at 500 for every administration of TIMSS at both grades. However, students in 8 countries and 4 states or provinces outperformed U.S. students at the 8th grade level: Chinese Taipei, Finland, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Russian Federation, Slovenia, Hong Kong-China, Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Alberta, Canada.

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7. When is PISA data collected in the United States?

PISA operates on a 3-year cycle, with 2000 being the first assessment year. For PISA 2000, the U.S. data collection began in April and ended in May. For PISA 2003, the U.S. data collection was conducted in the spring (the same as in 2000) and again in the fall, beginning in September and ending in November. For PISA 2006 and 2009, the U.S. data collection was conducted only in the fall (September–November). The PISA 2012 data collection was administered between October and November of 2012.

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8. Where can I get a copy of the U.S. PISA reports?

U.S. PISA reports for PISA 2000, 2003, 2006, 2009, and 2012 are available on the NCES website: http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/getpubcats.asp?sid=098.

The PISA International Data Explorer (IDE) http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/international/ide/) includes data for the United States and other education systems. Users can create their own tables and figures with the IDE.

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9. When is PISA next scheduled to be administered?

The next administration of PISA is in 2015. Results will be reported at the end of 2016.

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10. How is the OECD Test for Schools related to PISA?

In 2012, the OECD piloted a new test, based on the PISA assessment frameworks and statistically linked to the PISA scales, for individual schools. The purpose of this test, called the OECD Test for Schools in the United States, is for individual schools to benchmark their performance internationally. More information about this is available from the OECD at: http://www.oecd.org/pisa/aboutpisa/pisa-basedtestforschools.htm.

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11. How does PISA differ from other international assessments?

PISA differs from these studies in several ways:

Content
PISA is designed to measure "literacy" broadly, while other studies, such as TIMSS and NAEP, have a stronger link to curriculum frameworks and seek to measure students' mastery of specific knowledge, skills, and concepts. The content of PISA is drawn from broad content areas, such as space and shape for mathematics, in contrast to more specific curriculum-based content such as geometry or algebra.

Tasks
In addition to the differences in purpose and age coverage between PISA and other international comparative studies, PISA differs from other assessments in what students are asked to do. PISA focuses on assessing students' knowledge and skills in reading, mathematics, and science literacy in the context of everyday situations. That is, PISA emphasizes the application of knowledge to everyday situations by asking students to perform tasks that involve interpretation of real-world materials as much as possible. Analyses based on expert panels' reviews of mathematics and science items from PISA, TIMSS, and NAEP indicate that PISA items require multi-step reasoning more often than either TIMSS or NAEP. The study also shows that PISA mathematics and science literacy items often involve the interpretation of charts and graphs or other "real world" material. These tasks reflect the underlying assumption of PISA: as 15-year-olds begin to make the transition to adult life, they need to not only comprehend what they read or to retain particular mathematical formulas or scientific concepts, they need to know how to apply their knowledge and skills in the many different situations they will encounter in their lives.

Moreover, NAEP and PISA have different underlying approaches to mathematics that play out in the operationalization of items. NAEP focuses more closely on school-based curricular attainment whereas PISA focuses on literacy, or the use of mathematics in real-word situations. The implication of this difference is that while the NAEP assessment is not devoid of real-world contexts, it does not specifically require them; thus it includes computation items as well as problem solving items U.S. students are likely to encounter in school. PISA does not include any computation items (nor any items) that are not placed within a real-world context and, in that way, may be more unconventional to some students. PISA items also may have a heavier reading load, use a greater diversity of visual representations, and require students to make assumptions or sift through information that is irrelevant to the problem (i.e., ‘mathematize’), whereas NAEP items typically do not include this aspect. These are thus other ways in which the assessments differ and explain divergent trend results.

A study comparing the PISA and NAEP (grades 8 and 12) reading assessments found that PISA and NAEP view reading as a constructive process and both measure similar cognitive skills. There are differences between them, though, reflecting in part the different purposes of the assessments. First, NAEP has longer reading passages than PISA and asks more questions about each passage, which is possible because of the NAEP passages' longer length. With regard to cognitive skills, NAEP has more emphasis on critiquing and evaluating text, while PISA has more emphasis on locating information. NAEP also measures students’ understanding of vocabulary in context and PISA does not include any questions of this nature. Finally, NAEP has a greater emphasis on multiple-choice items compared to PISA and the nature of the open-ended items differs, where PISA open-ended items call for less elaboration and support from the text than do those in NAEP.

To learn more about the differences in the respective approaches to the assessment of mathematics, science and reading among PISA, TIMSS, and NAEP, see the following papers (a paper comparing NAEP and PISA 2012 is forthcoming):

Age-based sample
The goal of PISA is to represent outcomes of learning rather than outcomes of schooling. By placing the emphasis on age, PISA intends to show what 15-year-olds have learned inside and outside of school throughout their lives, not just in a particular grade. Focusing on age 15 provides an opportunity to measure broad learning outcomes while all students across the many participating nations are still required to be in school. Finally, because years of education vary among countries and education systems, choosing an age-based sample makes comparisons across countries and education systems somewhat easier.

Information collected
The kind of information PISA collects also reflects a policy purpose somewhat different from the other assessments. PISA collects only background information related to general school context and student demographics. This differs from other international studies such as TIMSS, which also collects background information related to how teachers in different countries approach the task of teaching and how the approved curriculum is implemented in the classroom. The TIMSS video studies further extend this work by capturing images of instruction across countries. The results of PISA will certainly inform education policy and spur further investigation into differences within and between countries and education systems, but PISA is not intended to provide direct information about improving instructional practice in the classroom. The purpose of PISA is to generate useful indicators to benchmark performance and inform policy.

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12. Are PISA scores of individual students reported or available for analysis?

Student and school-level data are available for download and analysis. However, the assessment methods used in international assessments only produce valid scores for groups, not individuals. Data from PISA 2012 for all countries, including the United States can be obtained from the OECD website at www.oecd.pisa.org. Data collected in the United States for PISA can be downloaded from: http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/getpubcats.asp?sid=098 (2012 data forthcoming).

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13. Can you report PISA results for states?

Yes and no. The U.S. national PISA results are representative of the nation as a whole but not of individual states. Drawing a sample that is representative of all 50 individual states would require a much larger sample than the United States currently draws for international assessments, requiring considerable amounts of additional time and money. A state may elect to participate in PISA as an individual education system—as Connecticut, Florida and Massachusetts did in 2012—and in that case a sample is drawn that is representative of that state.

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National Center for Education Statistics - http://nces.ed.gov
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