What is the Pisa test and what does it measure?

Every three years, the world's leaders wait anxiously for the OECD's Pisa study and the global league tables that flow from it. Here's everything you need to know.

Claudia Civinini

Pisa test

The Programme for International Student Assessment, or Pisa as it is more commonly known, has become the world's most influential education study

How does the PISA test work?

Every three years since 2000, a sample of 15-year-old students in each participating country has sat a series of tests for the study, centred on three main domains: science, reading, and maths.

Run by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Pisa has come to be seen as a measure of the effectiveness of the secondary school systems in the scores of countries' that participate.

In fact, it is actually designed to look at a significantly different question – how well students can apply knowledge to real-life situations and problems.

So factors outside education ministers' and schools' control – such as private tutoring or learning with parents at home can play a big part. But that has not stopped some countries from basing their curriculum and education policy around Pisa.

For the latest Pisa cycle, about 600,000 students from 79 countries took part in the assessment in 2018, representing  37 OECD countries and 42 partner countries.

2018 study: England climbs Pisa table as reading and maths improve

Research: England could rise up Pisa table if pupils changed GCSEs, study says

Analysis: England's pupils among the most segregated by ability

View: Pisa's 'rich' resource risked by 'useless' rankings

What does the PISA test measure?

In every cycle, there is a particular focus on one of the three main domains: in 2018, the focus was on reading, while in 2015, it was science and in 2012, mathematics. In the next assessment, which will take place in 2021, the focus will be on maths again.

The data Pisa gathers serves as the basis to compile rankings of countries in each of the three domains.

In Pisa 2015, Singapore topped all three rankings. On the podium with Singapore for mathematics were Hong Kong and Macau in second and third, for science, Japan and Estonia, and for reading, Hong Kong and Canada finished joint second.

When was the last PISA test?

The last test was carried out in 2018 and results were published in 2019. 

More on the 2018 results:

Satisfaction with life: UK teenagers less happy than in other countries

Rankings: Pisa education rankings: How did the UK perform? 

East Asia: Pisa: What the UK can learn from East Asia

Estonia: Estonia: Pisa's European success story

Growth mindset: Growth mindset linked to higher Pisa reading score

Wales: Wales makes progress in Pisa maths tests

Is the PISA test useful?

There has been considerable controversy over the statistical methods used to produce these highly influential country scores and rankings. Some academics have suggested the study's methodology is fundamentally flawed. However, others regard their concerns as “overblown”.

In addition to the three central subjects, every edition of Pisa includes additional tests on other domains, spanning from financial literacy to global competence. There are optional tests that countries can decide to opt into.

England, for example, has decided not to opt in for the creative thinking test included in Pisa 2021; it also didn’t take part in the global competence test in Pisa 2018.

Pisa also collects background data on students, which in England has been linked to the national pupil database.



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Claudia Civinini

Claudia Civinini

Find me on Twitter @claudiacivinini

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