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Note 5: International Assessments (2008)


Indicator 19 is based on data collected as part of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). First conducted in 2000, PISA had its first follow-up in 2003 and had a second follow-up in 2006. The focus of each PISA is on the capabilities of 15-year-olds in reading literacy, mathematics literacy and problem solving, and science literacy. However, in each assessment year, PISA provides a detailed examination for a different one of the three subjects and a basic examination of the other two subjects. The 2000 assessment focused on reading. The 2003 assessment focused on mathematics literacy and problem solving. The 2006 assessment focused on science literacy. PISA is sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental organization of 30 industrialized countries that serves as a forum for member countries to cooperate in research and policy development on social and economic topics of common interest.

In 2006, some 57 countries participated in PISA, including all 30 of the OECD countries and 27 non-OECD countries. To implement PISA, each participating country selected a nationally representative sample of 15-year-olds. A minimum of 4,500 students from a minimum of 150 schools was required. Each student completed a 2-hour paper-and-pencil assessment. Because PISA is an OECD initiative, all international averages presented for PISA are the averages of the participating OECD countries’ results.

PISA seeks to represent the overall yield of learning for 15-year-olds. PISA assumes that by the age of 15, young people have had a series of learning experiences, both in and out of school, that allow them to perform at particular levels in reading, mathematics, and science literacy. Formal education will have played a major role in student performance, but other factors, such as learning opportunities at home, also play a role. PISA’s results provide an indicator of the overall performance of a country’s educational system, but they also provide information about other factors that influence performance (e.g., hours of instructional time). By assessing students near the end of compulsory schooling in key knowledge and skills, PISA provides information about how well prepared students will be for their future lives as they approach an important transition point for education and work. PISA thus aims to show how well equipped 15-year-olds are for their futures based on what they have learned up to that point.

Science literacy is defined as “an individual’s scientific knowledge and use of that knowledge to identify questions, to acquire new knowledge, to explain scientific phenomena, and to draw evidence-based conclusions about science related issues, understanding of the characteristic features of science as a form of human knowledge and enquiry, awareness of how science and technology shape our material, intellectual, and cultural environments, and willingness to engage in science-related issues, and with the ideas of science, as a reflective citizen.”

Science literacy can be broken down into three “competency clusters”: (1) identification, which includes recognizing issues that are possible to investigate scientifically; (2) explaining phenomena, which covers applying knowledge of science in a given situation; (3) using evidence, which includes interpreting scientific data and making and communicating conclusions.

Problem solving is defined as “an individual’s capacity to use cognitive processes to confront and resolve real, cross-disciplinary situations where the solution is not immediately obvious, and where the literacy domains or curricular areas that might be applicable are not within a single domain of mathematics, science, or reading.” Students completed exercises that assessed their capabilities in using reasoning processes not only to draw conclusions, but also to make decisions, to troubleshoot (i.e., to understand the reasons for malfunctioning of a system or device), and/or to analyze the procedures and structures of a complex system (such as a simple kind of programming language). Problem-solving items required students to apply various reasoning processes, such as inductive and deductive reasoning, reasoning about cause and effect, or combinatorial reasoning (i.e., systematically comparing all the possible variations that can occur in a well-described situation). Students were also assessed in their skills in working toward a solution and communicating the solution to others through appropriate representations. For more information about the PISA, see

Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS)

Indicator 18 uses data collected as part of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). PIRLS 2006 was the second cycle of the study, which was first administered in 2001. Designed to be collected in a planned 5-year cycle of international trend studies in reading literacy by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), PIRLS 2006 provides comparative information on the reading literacy of 4th-graders and examines factors that may be associated with the acquisition of reading literacy in young children. The study, conducted by IEA, assessed the reading comprehension of children in 45 jurisdictions. In each jurisdiction, students from the upper of the two grades with the most 9-year-olds (4th grade in the United States and most countries) were assessed.

For further information on PIRLS, see