Why the PISA Exam is the ONE test all kids should take

Hey Firestarters! Last week during book club we talked about the PISA Test. In her book The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley made a pretty strong argument about how what we view as “premiere education” here in the States does not stack up against the education received in other countries. She cited the PISA test as the data used to support her claims. After the reading, I was curious to see if the PISA test was still being taken by US students, and if so, how our kids are faring. I know that you probably already saw this coming but the results were eye opening. While US students have certainly made improvements, there are other take aways that I believe will help to inform our approach to education in this country.

First of all, the PISA test is absolutely still taken by U.S. students but unfortunately it is not taken universally. I pulled this directly from the site:

In PISA, each participating country is represented by a small sample of schools and students selected to reflect its population and educational contexts and provide valid estimates of student achievement. Schools in the U.S. are selected using a scientific process from a list of all schools in the United States enrolling 15-year-old students. The selection method ensures that the U.S. participants accurately represent the whole United States, not just particular types of schools or groups of students. In the United States, 240 schools have been randomly selected to take part in PISA 2015. In each school, up to 42 students will be randomly selected to participate. Also, 25 teachers in each school will also be asked to complete a teacher questionnaire.

In order to keep the process fair, schools and students are randomly selected for each country. I know that this really does help to provide a window into instruction but I wish that the test were something that schools could opt in to take. Even if their results were not reported along with the national ones, I think the information would be good for school and district leaders to have.

The PISA measures several things that we currently are struggling to quantify including:

  1. Problem Solving and Collaboration Ability
  2. Life Satisfaction
  3. Sense of Belonging
  4. School Related Anxiety
  5. Financial Literacy
  6. Parental Support

I think that we have an eye on these things in US Education but we are just now getting to a place where we all understand that students need more than “Reading, Writing, and ‘Rithmatic” in order to be successful. Schools are having discussions about inclusion, discussions about equity, and discussions about involvement. While all of those are needed they are essentially meaningless if we have no research backed way to measure our progress. If you took a look at 15 different SEL programs you would have 15 different ways to measure success. What we need is a universal yardstick and PISA provides that.

The questions are brain benders. While we have almost conditioned students to fill in the multiple choice bubble that best fits, the PISA looks at how students solve problem. Their process is as heavily evaluated as their answer and that is what sets the test apart. I took one of the free sample exams and it was structured like a group text chat! My gaol was to determine, based on the situation, how to collaborate effectively with my team. When was the last time your kids had to do that? Currently, US students (as of the 2015 exam) are outperforming their peers internationally in Reading and Science Literacy but lagging a bit behind in Math and even then boys are outperforming girls in every subject but Reading. We still clearly have work to do. U.S. students also have one of the largest gaps in school satisfaction and school related anxiety when results are filtered by socioeconomic status and gpa.

In this age of accountability and difficult conversations, we have to be willing to put all of our cards on the table. We have to use data to examine every facet of school function and student experience. That goes far beyond surveys issued via email.

For those of you looking to give the exam a whirl, they have free test items that you can take any time. Try it for yourself and then risk trying it on your students. Ultimately, the more we know, the better we will be. We can’t shy away from our students’ performance data in any area. By embracing PISA we are essentially saying that we are ready to move beyond academics into formally evaluating the well being of the whole child and that in my opinion is exactly where we should be.


~Dr. Kia