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PISA 101 with Robert Rothman

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November 27, 2013 01:13 pm


The following is a Q&A on PISA with Robert Rothman, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education. Rothman is nationally known education writer, editor, and expert on the Common Core State Standards, deeper learning, and assessments. Read more of his work on these topics on the blog for Harvard Education Publishing. Read our last Q&A with Rothman on deeper learning on the High School Soup blog. For more information on PISA and to register to watch the first ever national digital PISA Day, visit

What is PISA?
The Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, is a test given every three years to fifteen-year-olds in reading, mathematics, and science. In 2012, it was administered to students in sixty-five countries and economies, as well as three U.S. states. The test was developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based group of the leading industrialized countries. It was first administered in 2000.

Unlike other tests, PISA was designed to measure not so much what students have learned, but how well they can apply what they have learned to real-world problems. These abilities are important in an increasingly complex world.

In addition to a test, PISA also includes extensive surveys of students and principals, which provide important clues about why some nations have performed well. The PISA results have led to substantial changes in education policy and practice in a number of countries.

How has the United States performed on PISA?
In 2009, the last time PISA was administered, U.S. fifteen-year-olds performed fourteenth among the thirty-four OECD countries in reading, seventeenth in science, and twenty-fifth in mathematics. The reading and science scores were about at the international average, while the mathematics score was below average.

Shanghai-China was at the top of the international rankings in all three subjects, followed by Korea and Finland in reading and mathematics. In science, Finland, Hong Kong-China, and Singapore outperformed Korea.

How can countries that are so different be compared in educational performance?
The samples of students who take PISA in each country are drawn carefully to represent the diversity of each country, with additional weight given to students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. But contrary to what some in the United States believe, the U.S. is not uniquely diverse. Many countries have large populations of immigrants and non-native speakers, and the population of socioeconomically disadvantaged students in the United States is at about the OECD average. In addition, it is not true that the U.S. educates all students while other countries educate an elite; in 2009, 82 percent of fifteen-year-olds were in school in the United States, the third lowest figure among OECD nations.

What is PISA’s relation to the Common Core State Standards?
The Common Core State Standards call for students to demonstrate many of the abilities measured by PISA. For example, the English language arts standards place a strong emphasis on students’ ability to use evidence to support conclusions in writing. This is a clear call for critical thinking. Similarly, the mathematics standards ask students to use their knowledge to solve problems, and to communicate mathematically.

What should parents know about PISA?
PISA provides results at the national level, and in 2012, three states—Connecticut, Florida, and Massachusetts—participated to provide results at the state level. So there are no results for individual students or schools.

However, America Achieves, an organization based in New York, has developed a version of PISA that is being administered in individual schools. The OECD Test for Schools, as it is known, was administered on a pilot basis in 105 high schools in 2012, and this year it is open to any high school that wants to participate. The test is administered to a sample of students, so it provides results at the school level. But schools that have participated say it provides important information about students’ abilities to use their knowledge to think critically and solve problems, information that might not be available from state tests.

What about policymakers?
PISA provides important clues about the factors that lead to high performance. We have learned from other research that the countries that perform well on PISA have well-developed instructional systems that include strong standards that expect students to use their knowledge to think critically and solve problems; assessments that measure these abilities; and well-qualified teachers. The United States has made a strong start toward such a system with the adoption by forty-six states of the Common Core State Standards and is moving toward a new generation of assessments that measure complex abilities. These must be implemented effectively so that teachers are capable of teaching to the standards and preparing students to do well on the assessments.

For more information on PISA and to register to watch the first ever national digital PISA Day, visit

Robert Rothman is a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education.


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