The PISA studies started at the turn of the millennium. The programme is designed to compare how well 15-year-olds master certain key skills and knowledge relevant for the future. The actual PISA test items are based on international frameworks developed by educational experts. PISA does not seek to assess school learning in terms of curricular content. By definition, PISA studies involve 15-year-old students at Grade 7 or higher.

In Finland, most of them are ninth-graders, but there are some eighth-graders as well. Worldwide, most PISA students are going through their tenth year of school.

Based on cognitive tests and background questionnaire data, altogether ten score estimates for all assessment domains are produced for each participating student. National averages for reporting purposes are then calculated from these student scores. In the first PISA round, in 2000, the average score for OECD countries was set to 500 with a standard deviation of 100 score points. Later, this OECD average has slightly declined and is now 487 score points for reading literacy and 489 for mathematics and science, respectively. In addition to these main assessment domains, PISA includes a number of innovative areas varying by assessment rounds as well as the optional assessment domain of financial literacy.

The test item pool is nowadays so large that virtually each student within a single school has a different cognitive test. The large number and different orientations of test items ensure that they measure students’ literacy skills according to the set frameworks as comprehensively and diversely as possible. The participants are selected by means of stratified sampling, yielding approximately 160 schools with 42 randomly chosen students from each. The results for an individual school depend on their students ending up in the sample, thus the confidence interval for school-based score averages have typically been +/- 15 to 20 score points. Therefore, the PISA study is not suitable for the comparison of individual schools or for student assessment.

Nationally, the student performance levels can be compared reliably only among larger statistical areas, i.e. the Helsinki region, and southern, western, eastern, and northern Finland. The participating schools receive feedback reports on their results, and knowing their own samples, the schools can then make their own interpretations. PISA assesses and compares comprehensively and with high quality standards the literacy levels produced by school systems in different countries and also various factors associated with student performance. At the school system level, we also get excellent information about the regional distribution of literacy skills as well as to what extent it is divided into between-school and between-student variation.

PISA studies are most useful when the results are used alongside other research and when the produced comparative data is employed in support of educational policymaking.

Background information

Organised by the OECD, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study was conducted in 2018 for the seventh time. By volume, it was the largest international assessment study ever, involving a total of 600,000 students from 79 countries.

The history of international studies assessing schoolchildren’s skills and knowledge reaches back over 60 years. It can be regarded to originate from the First International Mathematics Study (FIMS) organised in 1964 by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), founded in Hamburg by UNESCO. The study involved 12 countries. Finland was one of them and our 13-year-old lower secondary school students were the fourth best with an average score of 26.4 points. The best participating country in this comparison was Israel with an average of 33 points.

Arto K. Ahonen

Senior Researcher, PISA National Project Manager
Finnish Institute for Educational Research, University of Jyväskylä

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