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Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)

1. Overview

Assesses literacy skills in the following areas:
  • Reading literacy
  • Mathematics literacy
  • Science literacy

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a system of international assessments that measures 15-year-old students' capabilities in reading literacy, mathematics literacy, and science literacy every three years. PISA, first implemented in 2000, was developed and is administered under the auspices of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental organization of industrialized countries.1 PISA 2015 was the sixth in this series of assessments; the next cycle of data will be collected in 2018. The PISA Consortium, a group of international organizations engaged by the OECD, is responsible for coordinating the study operations across countries and currently consists of the German Institute for Educational Research and the Educational Testing Service. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), in the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education, is responsible for the implementation of PISA in the United States.

PISA was implemented in 43 countries and education systems in the first cycle (32 in 2000 and 11 in 2002), 41 in the second cycle (2003), 57 in the third cycle (2006), 75 in the fourth cycle (65 in 2009 and 10 in 2010), and 65 in the fifth cycle (2012).  In PISA 2015, 73 countries and education systems participated.  The test is typically administered to between 4,500 and 10,000 students in each country/education system. Education systems are regions of a country that participate in PISA separately from the whole country.


PISA provides internationally comparative information on the reading, mathematics, and science literacy of students at an age that, for most education systems, is near the end of compulsory schooling. The objective of PISA is to measure the "yield" of education systems, or what skills and competencies students have acquired and can apply in reading, mathematics, and science to real-world contexts by age 15. The literacy concept emphasizes the mastery of processes, the understanding of concepts, and the application of knowledge and functioning in various situations. By focusing on literacy, PISA draws not only from school curricula but also from learning that may occur outside of school.


Assessment. PISA is designed to assess 15‑year-olds' performance in reading, mathematics, and science literacy. PISA 2003 and PISA 2012 included an optional problem solving assessment; in PISA 2012, not all countries participated in this assessment. PISA 2012 also introduced computer-based assessments for both reading and mathematics, as well as a paper-based financial literacy, assessment which participating education systems had the option of administering.

PISA 2015 included a new domain in collaborative problem solving, different than Problem Solving administered in 2003 and 2012 and financial literacy assessments in addition to the core assessment subjects. In 2015, science, reading, and mathematics literacy were assessed through a computer-based assessment in the majority of countries. Each student took a two‑hour assessment. Assessment items include a combination of multiple-choice questions, closed- or short- response questions (for which answers are either correct or incorrect), and open-constructed response questions (for which answers can receive partial credit).

Questionnaires. Students complete a 30-minute questionnaire providing information about their backgrounds, attitudes, and experiences in school. In addition, the principal of each participating school completes a 30-minute questionnaire on the school's demographics and learning environment. Teacher questionnaires were added in PISA 2015; up to 25 teachers per school completed 30-minute questionnaires on teaching practices, beliefs about teaching, and their qualifications and backgrounds.

In order to keep PISA as inclusive as possible and to keep the exclusion rate down, the United States, Massachusetts, and North Carolina used the UH ('Une Heure') instrument designed for students with special education needs (Puerto Rico did not use the UH instrument). The UH instrument was available to special education needs students within mainstream schools and contained about half as many items as the regular test instrument. These testing items were deemed more suitable for students with special education needs. A UH student questionnaire was also administered, which only contained trend items from the regular student questionnaire. The timing structure of both the UH test instrument and UH student questionnaire allowed more time per question than the regular instruments and UH sessions were generally held in small groups.



PISA operates on a three-year cycle. Each PISA assessment cycle focuses on one subject in particular, although all three subjects are assessed every year. In 2000, PISA focused on reading literacy; in 2003, on mathematics literacy (including problem solving); and in 2006, on science literacy. In 2009, the focus was again on reading literacy, and PISA 2012 focused on mathematics (including problem solving and financial literacy). In 2015, PISA focused on science literacy (including collaborative problem solving and financial literacy as optional domains).

1 Countries that participate in PISA are referred to as jurisdictions or education systems throughout this chapter.