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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 2009 was the fourth in this series of assessments; the fifth in the series took place in 2012. 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 The PISA Consortium, a group of international organizations engaged by the OECD, is responsible for coordinating the study operations across countries. The consortium is led by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), an independent nonprofit organization. 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 economies in the first cycle (32 in 2000 and 11 in 2002), 41 in the second cycle (2003), 57 in the third cycle (2006) and 75 in the fourth cycle (65 in 2009 and 10 in 2010). In PISA 2012, 65 countries and economies participated. The test is typically administered to between 4,500 and 10,000 students in each country/economy. Economies 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 jurisdictions, 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 2012 also included a problem solving assessment, in which not all countries participated because of technical issues, and computer-based reading, mathematics, and financial literacy, which participating economies had the option of administering.

PISA 2015 will include collaborative problem solving and financial literacy assessments in addition to the core assessment subjects. In 2012, PISA was administered as a paper-and-pencil assessment; in 2015, PISA will be entirely computer-based. Each student takes 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 school characteristics and policies. Teacher questionnaires will be a new addition to the PISA data collection starting in 2015.



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 will focus on science literacy (including collaborative problem solving and financial literacy).

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