Skip Navigation
Skip Navigation

PISA 2012 Results - Introduction

What Is PISA?

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a system of international assessments that allows countries to compare outcomes of learning as students near the end of compulsory schooling. PISA core assessments measure the performance of 15-year-old students in mathematics, science, and reading literacy every 3 years. Coordinated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), PISA was first implemented in 2000 in 32 countries. It has since grown to 65 education systems in 2012.

What PISA Measures

PISA’s goal is to assess students’ preparation for the challenges of life as young adults. PISA assesses the application of knowledge in mathematics, science, and reading literacy to problems within a real-life context (OECD 1999). PISA does not focus explicitly on curricular outcomes and uses the term “literacy” in each subject area to indicate its broad focus on the application of knowledge and skills. For example, when assessing mathematics, PISA examines how well 15-year-old students can understand, use, and reflect on mathematics for a variety of real-life problems and settings that they may not encounter in the classroom. Scores on the PISA scales represent skill levels along a continuum of literacy skills.

Each PISA data collection cycle assesses one of the three core subject areas in depth (considered the major subject area), 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. 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. Visit for PISA 2012 released assessment items.