The PISA Test: What It Is & How It Impacts Education

The PISA test is an assessment tool used to evaluate school systems and determine which areas of education could use improvement.

The PISA Test: What It Is & How It Impacts Education main image

The PISA test, short for Programme for International Student Assessment, is used to test the mathematics, science, and reading knowledge of 15-year-olds. The goal of this test is to help the participating countries assess and improve their education systems by revealing how well students can apply the concepts they’ve learned.

In this article, we will examine the PISA test in depth, explore why it is important, and investigate its relationship with IQ and related tests.

So, let’s dive in!

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Key takeaways

Key Takeaways

  • The PISA test is an international assessment tool administered to 15-year-old students to test their comprehension in three domains: mathematics, science, and reading.
  • The test was developed by the OECD and first administered in 2000. Since then, it has been repeated every three years, with an increasing number of participating countries.
  • The PISA test is used to evaluate school systems, expand knowledge about education, and encourage policymakers to create better curricula.
  • The top performers in PISA testing are typically countries from East Asia and Europe, while Central America and Southeast Asia tend to lag behind significantly.

PISA Test in Detail: What Is It & Why Is It Important?

The PISA test is an assessment tool used to evaluate education systems in various countries and it is important because it encourages policymakers to improve them to meet international standards.

Basically, this test ensures that all nations are on the same track in terms of education, even if their starting points are vastly different.

To achieve this purpose, the PISA test is administered to 15-year-old students, regardless of the grade they are in. More specifically, students between the ages of 15 and three months and 16 and two months are eligible to participate in the testing.

That’s because students in this age bracket are either completing their compulsory education or nearing their final years. Thus, they are expected to have accumulated enough knowledge to accurately represent the state of their country’s education system.

Once a sample of at least 5,000 students has been made (excluding small countries with fewer students in a year), the test is officially administered.

It consists of three parts: mathematics, science, and reading.

It’s important to note that the PISA test doesn’t focus on the information students might have memorized over the years. Instead, it examines how well they can apply what they’ve learned to real-life situations.

In other words, students can’t study specifically for the PISA exam. Rather, the school must prepare them by working on their cognitive skills and the ability to reason and deduce.

History of PISA Testing

The history of PISA testing isn’t very long—the program was formed in 1997 and officially launched three years later, in 2000. That’s when the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) administered the first PISA test to 28 member countries and four partner nations.

After the successful first cycle, PISA testing continued every three years, with more and more countries participating. Additionally, it was decided that every cycle would have a different focus—in 2000, it was reading, while in 2003, mathematics took precedence.

Aside from the basic three domains of testing, PISA has included other assessments over the years. For instance, collaborative problem-solving was tested in 2012 and 2015, while the 2022 version included a creative thinking test.

PISA testing had been held regularly for twenty years, until 2021, when it had to be postponed. This was due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which made it impossible to conduct the assessment safely. As a result, the test was administered in 2022 instead, and the next cycle will take place in 2025.

What Does the PISA Test Look Like?

Students taking PISA test

Students taking PISA test

The PISA test looks like a typical exam—it includes both multiple-choice and open-ended questions and takes about two hours to complete.

There are 13 booklets in total, each containing a mixture of questions that test science, reading, and mathematics. However, students aren’t expected to complete all of them. Instead, everyone is randomly assigned a task with a specific combination of tasks.

Once they complete the cognitive part of the test, students must answer questions about their background, learning styles, and motivation. Principals receive a similar questionnaire, asking them about the demographics in their schools.

Since PISA tests students’ ability to comprehend information and apply knowledge to real-life situations, questions tend to differ from the ones usually encountered in schools.

For instance, a typical literacy task includes a short text with several questions that check students’ reading comprehension or ask them to find specific information in the material.

On the other hand, an example of the PISA test mathematics question may require the students to read graphs, work with percentages, or otherwise demonstrate their logical-mathematical intelligence.

Science tasks may include some questions that test students’ understanding of fundamental scientific concepts, like DNA or biodiversity. However, even then, students are expected to apply this knowledge rather than simply replicate it.

What is the PISA Test Used For?

The PISA test is primarily used to evaluate school systems, expand knowledge about education, and hold education policymakers accountable. In other words, this program can raise education standards both on a national and international level.

Below, we will examine some of the most common PISA test applications.

#1. Evaluating School Systems

National PISA scores in mathematics, science, and reading are compared to other participating countries’ results and ranked from best to worst. That way, each country gains insight into its education system’s performance and potential shortcomings.

So, if a country receives a low score in one of the domains—for instance, mathematics—that may be a sign that the curriculum needs to be updated. In that sense, the PISA test serves as a guideline for governments and policymakers.

#2. Expanding Knowledge About Education

Since 81 countries participate in PISA testing, the databases generated during this process are extensive and can be invaluable for research on education.

For instance, researchers may use them to explore how different education policies affect knowledge acquisition and whether some practices truly benefit students. This was done in the study by Yulia Tyumeneva and Yulia Kuzmina from HSE University, which concluded that vocational education transfers knowledge less effectively than academic pathways.

#3. Holding Policy Makers Accountable

By introducing international educational standards, PISA testing can hold national policymakers accountable for the performance of their country’s school system. Without this assessment, they may not feel the need to evaluate their policies, nor can they know whether they are on the right track.

PISA’s influence on policymaking was best demonstrated in Germany, a country traditionally believed to have an excellent education system.

In 2000, Germany experienced the so-called “PISA shock when its PISA test results came back lower than the OECD average. Seeing this, the public demanded a change, leading to increased spending on education, greater support for disadvantaged students, and an emphasis on national education standards.

Criticisms of PISA Testing

Common criticisms of PISA testing include the following:

  • Potential narrowing of the curriculum. If countries began to view excellent performance on the PISA test as the ultimate goal, their education systems would focus on its three key domains. This could lead to the narrowing of the curriculum and a decreased interest in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.
  • Issues with sampling. PISA’s sampling might not be as random as intended—several countries, such as China, Argentina, and Malaysia, have been known to rig the results by selecting students from their most educated regions. This, of course, leads to higher scores but also defeats the purpose of the PISA test.
  • Cultural bias. Although PISA is designed to be as culture-neutral as possible, it suffers from the same issue as IQ tests—true cultural neutrality is impossible. Ultimately, it is a test shaped by Western models of education that disregards the diversity of cultures and approaches to knowledge in countries outside of this sphere.
  • Excessive focus on testing. The consequence of PISA testing is that many education systems now emphasize the importance of tests and quantifying knowledge. This does have some advantages, but it also puts additional pressure on students and encourages them to study for tests rather than acquire knowledge for their own development.

PISA Test Ranking

PISA test rankings are represented in the form of a table with three columns: mathematics, science, and reading. The first column is always the focus domain for that year—for instance, in the latest PISA testing in 2022, it was mathematics.

Generally speaking, the top performers on the PISA test are East Asian and West European countries, along with Australia and New Zealand. On the other hand, the bottom ranks tend to be occupied by nations in Central America, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East.

So, for instance, Singapore dominated all three lists in 2022, followed by Macau (China) for mathematics, Japan for science, and Ireland for reading. Macau and Japan also landed third place in science and reading, respectively, while Chinese Taipei entered the top three in mathematics.

Here is a table of the top performers on the PISA 2022, with scores:

Singapore (575)Singapore (561)Singapore (543)
Macau (552)Japan (547)Ireland (516)
Chinese Taipei (547)Macau (543)Japan (516)

On the bottom end of the ranking, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, and Morocco placed 79th in mathematics, science, and reading, respectively. The second-to-last position was occupied by Uzbekistan in science and reading and Paraguay in mathematics. Finally, Cambodia scored the worst in all three domains of the PISA test.

Below, you will find a table with the bottom three performers and their scores in PISA’s key domains:

Dominican Republic (339)The Philippines (356)Morocco (339)
Paraguay (338)Uzbekistan (355)Uzbekistan (336)
Cambodia (336)Cambodia (347)Cambodia (329)

PISA Test and IQ Scores

PISA Test and IQ Scores

PISA Test and IQ Scores

PISA test scores and IQ scores are correlated, which is hardly surprising considering that both measure cognitive potential and focus on problem-solving, logical reasoning, and deduction.

In fact, researchers have found a way to convert PISA scores into IQ and use them to determine the average intelligence in different countries. However, it’s important to note that PISA doesn’t encourage combining the scores from three domains into a single one.

Regardless, if you want to convert a PISA score into IQ, you should know that PISA’s mean of 500 is basically equal to the average score of 100 on an IQ scale.

Before we can use these means, though, we must calculate how many PISA points equal one IQ point. To do that, we will use each test’s standard deviation—in PISA’s case, it’s 100, while the IQ scale has a deviation of 15.

Then, we must solve a simple equation: 100:15 = x:1. The result is approximately 6.66, but for convenience’s sake, researchers have decided that one IQ point equals 6.5 PISA points.

So, if a country has a score of 435 on the PISA test, we can easily convert that into an IQ of 90. All we have to do is subtract 435 from 500 and see how many IQ points the result equals.

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Final Thoughts

Ultimately, the PISA test is an important tool for standardizing education across the board and encouraging countries to strive toward the same educational goal. It has been fairly successful in this, especially in developed countries that take its results quite seriously.

However, PISA isn’t and shouldn’t be the definitive measure of education. Like any test, it has its shortcomings and emphasizes the importance of fields that can be quantified over those that can’t. Thus, it’s essential to crucially evaluate its results rather than blindly implement any changes it may suggest.

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