Are US Students Improving Or Sliding Lower In Global Ranking?

Bob Nilsson Director, Vertical Solutions Marketing Published 23 Mar 2016

How the PISA Test has Evolved – and Looking Toward 2015 Results

Last time PISA test results were released, the US ranked 27th in math and 20th in science among the 34 countries participating. In reading, we ranked 17th. The latest PISA tests were administered online and concentrate on teamwork skills. Will US students fare better? 


The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a worldwide study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) of 15-year-old students and how their scholastic performance in mathematics, science and reading skills compare around the world. First conducted in 2000, the test is undertaken every three years, focusing on one subject at a time. The aim is to improve education policies and outcomes by measuring how well students can apply their knowledge to real-life situations. Armed with the findings, policy makers can determine the knowledge and skills of students in their own countries in comparison with other countries, set future targets against measurable achievements of other education systems, and learn from policies and practices applied elsewhere.

In 2011, Pearson, the world’s largest education publishing company, was chosen by the OECD to develop the frameworks for the PISA 2015 educational assessment. The fifth survey in 2012 included 65 countries, representing about 28 million 15-year-olds globally. For 2015, PISA’s main emphasis was the scientific literacy of students around the world. That test featured some new elements, including:

  • An assessment of students’ collaborative problem solving skills, especially communication and teamwork proficiency needed by students to learn and work throughout their lives
  • Greater use of computer-based testing

The use of computer-based testing has been a highly-discussed topic. Up until 2015, the assessment had been completed mainly by paper and pencil. This time, 58 of the 72 economies participating between November and December last year administered the PISA test by computer. Early research suggests that the shift to computer-based testing will significantly influence the results, which are due to be published at the end of this year. In fact, looking at data from 32 countries that completed both a paper and a computer mathematics test as part of PISA 2012, average paper scores differ from computer scores by more than ten test points in about a third of countries – a substantial difference.

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John Jerrim, Lecturer in Economics and Social Statistics at University College London, highlighted why the computer-based testing could change the 2015 PISA results:

  • Conducting a test on paper versus by computer requires different cognitive processes. A computer test can be more engaging by including interactive tools. Students also have to finish a specific set of questions before they can move on – there’s no leaving the hard questions for the end.
  • Schools with slow network connections or outdated operating systems can frustrate students and leave room for error when computers crash or hang up. Because of this, schools need to ensure they have a solid network infrastructure that provides a consistent and reliable test experience.

When the PISA 2015 scores are published in December 2016, we’ll see how the results vary between paper and computer-based tests, and across geographies, gender and socio-economic groups.  Will schools with the best networks and testing devices have an advantage? To see how one school prepares for online testing read, PARCC and Smarter Balanced Common Core Testing: Practical IT Infrastructure Tips and Hints.

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