Development and Implementation

Developed from 1997, the first PISA assessment was carried out in 2000; the tests are taken every three years. Every period of assessment specializes in one particular subject but also tests the other main areas studied.

In 2000, 265 000 students from 32 countries took part in PISA; 28 of them were OECD member countries. In 2002 the same tests were taken by 11 more "partner" countries (i.e. non-OECD members). The main focus of the 2000 tests was reading literacy, with two thirds of the questions being on that subject.

Over 275 000 students took part in PISA 2003, which was conducted in 41 countries, including all 30 OECD countries. (England, however, failed to test enough children, so it was not included in the international comparisons.) The focus was mathematics literacy, testing real-life situations in which mathematics is useful. Problem solving was also tested for the first time.

In 2006, 56 countries are participating, and the main focus of PISA 2006 is science literacy. In 2009 reading literacy will again be the main focus, giving the first opportunity to measure improvements in that domain.

Comparison with TIMSS and PIRLS

Another international mathematics assessment test is the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), undertaken by the International Association for Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA). Results from the TIMSS often contradict results of the PISA test. The PISA mathematics literacy test includes educational matter such as fuzzy maths: the general topics of quantity, space and shape, change and relationships, and uncertainty. TIMSS, on the other hand, measures more traditional classroom content such as an understanding of fractions and decimals and the relationship between them. It divides mathematical domains into two dimensions: first, the more fuzzy-maths-based "cognitive domains" and secondly more traditional "contents domains". The cognitive domains it covers are "Knowing Facts and Procedures, Using Concepts, Solving Routine Problems and Reasoning", and the contents domains are "Number, Algebra, Measurement, Geometry and Data". The latter reflect "the importance of being able to continue comparisons of achievement with previous assessments in these content domains". PISA argues that international assessment should not be restricted to a set body of knowledge. Instead, it deals with education's application to real-life problems and life-long learning.

In reading literacy, the equivalent to TIMSS is the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study or PIRLS. In the PISA reading literacy test, students are not penalized for faulty spelling, grammar and punctuation. The OECD explains: "OECD/PISA does not measure the extent to which 15-year-old students are fluent readers or how competent they are at word recognition tasks or spelling". Instead, they should be able to "construct, extend and reflect on the meaning of what they have read across a wide range of continuous and non-continuous texts". PIRLS, on the other hand, describes reading literacy as "the ability to understand and use those written language forms required by society and/or valued by the individual." PIRLS includes using language forms in reading literacy. However, according to the IEA, in scoring the PIRLS tests, "the focus is solely on students’ understanding of the text, not on their ability to write well."