Frequently asked questions

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About the tests

Comparing International PISA assessment and the PISA-Based Test for Schools

Conducting the PISA-Based Test for Schools

Your school results

What is the PISA-Based Test for Schools?

The PISA-Based Test for Schools is a school-level assessment developed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The assessment is based on the internationally recognised Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) which is organised by the OECD in partnership with participating countries and economies. While the PISA-Based Test for Schools is based on the same PISA assessment frameworks, it provides results for participating schools rather than national results. The UK is a member of the OECD and has participated in PISA since it began in 2000.

The PISA-Based Test for Schools is not directly linked to the national or school curricula. Like PISA, the test is designed to assess to what extent your school’s 15-year-old students, as they near the end of their compulsory education, can apply their knowledge and skills to real life situations and be equipped for full participation in modern society. And also like PISA, it examines how well students can apply what they have learned to unfamiliar contexts, both in and outside of school.

The assessment will provide you with descriptive information and key analyses on the skills and creative application of knowledge of your 15-year-old students in reading, mathematics, and science, comparable to existing PISA data.

In addition to tests, students answer a contextual questionnaire that will provide you with valuable insights on how different factors within and outside school associate with your students’ performance. Student questionnaires are an important part of the assessment and will provide you with hard to obtain information about students’ socio-economic backgrounds, their attitudes to their learning environment inside and outside of school and their interests in reading, science and mathematics.

Unlike the main PISA study where particular schools are sampled for participation, the PISA-Based Test for Schools is available to any schools who wish to participate. NFER is currently running the service in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the British Channel Islands. Participation involves a random sample of 84 fifteen year old students sitting a test and questionnaire that will be administered and marked by NFER staff. Participating schools receive a report of their school’s performance against national and international benchmark data based on the main PISA study.

What is PISA?

PISA is an international study that evaluates education systems worldwide every three years by assessing 15-year-olds' competencies in reading, mathematics and science. To date, over half a million students representing 28 million 15-year-olds in 74 countries and economies have participated in PISA.

The main PISA test assesses what students know and can do in reading, mathematics and science. The aggregate results per country/economy have informed national and global policy discussions since 2000. Results from the 2012 cycle of the main PISA study were published on 3 December 2013.

For more information about PISA, please view this guide produced by the OECD.

Was there a pilot trial of the PISA-Based Test for Schools assessment?

The international pilot trial was undertaken with 126 schools across Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States in 2012. The purpose of the pilot was to confirm the administrative conditions and procedures of the assessment, explore how results would be reported, and obtain feedback from the participating schools and areas before the instruments were made publicly available in 2013.

What other countries are using the PISA-Based Test for schools?

In addition to the US, Spain, England, Northern Ireland, Wales and the Channel Islands, the OECD is currently in discussions with governments in other countries about the terms by which the PISA-Based Test for Schools might be made available.

Don't other tests already measure the same things?

The PISA-Based Test for Schools measures students’ ability to retrieve and creatively apply knowledge. It is not aligned to a specific national curriculum, but measures core international competencies in reading, mathematics and science. It is meant to complement – not duplicate - national content and curricula.

What assessment scales underpin these tests?

Achievement in PISA can also be described in terms of levels of proficiency – there are six proficiency levels for each subject. The PISA proficiency levels are devised by the OECD and are not linked to any country specific curriculum level indicators or exam grades. Students who ‎achieve the highest level of proficiency are likely to be able to complete the most difficult ‎PISA items, while students who achieve the lowest level are expected only to be able to ‎complete basic tasks.

What is actually being assessed?

The tests are designed to assess students’ literacy across the domains of reading, mathematics and science.

Reading literacy

An individual’s capacity to: understand, use, reflect on and engage with written texts, in order to achieve one’s goals, to develop one’s knowledge and potential, and to participate in society.

Mathematical literacy

An individual’s capacity to: identify and understand the role that mathematics plays in the world, to make well-founded judgements and to use and engage with mathematics in ways that meet the needs of that individual’s life as a constructive, concerned and reflective citizen.

Scientific literacy

An individual’s scientific knowledge and use of that knowledge to identify questions, to acquire new knowledge, to explain scientific phenomena, and to draw evidence-based conclusions about science-related issues, understanding of the characteristic features of science as a form of human knowledge and enquiry, awareness of how science and technology shape our material, intellectual, and cultural environments, and willingness to engage in science-related issues, and with the ideas of science, as a reflective citizen.

Why compare school-level results internationally?

Given our global, knowledge-based economy, it has become all the more important to compare students not only to local or national standards, but also to the performance of the world’s top-performing education systems. In the UK, there has been growing interest in comparing student performance to international benchmarks, both as a gauge of how well prepared students are to participate in a globalised society and as a means of setting targets above and beyond basic proficiency levels or local expectations. The PISA–Based Test for Schools is designed to support schools in their continual improvement efforts by providing comprehensive feedback on the performance of their school and how this compares to national and international benchmarks and performance in similar schools.

What will the PISA-Based Test for Schools tell us?

In addition to assessing students’ ability to apply the knowledge they have acquired, the PISA-Based Test for Schools also benchmarks how students compare with their peers within and beyond local and national borders, an indication of how well prepared they are to become members of an increasingly global society.

In addition, through questionnaires, the assessment collects information from students on the learning environment within schools and in classrooms, teacher-student relations, and students’ attitudes towards and engagement in learning.

The assessment provides school-level estimates of performance and school-level information on the learning environment and students’ attitudes gathered from the student questionnaires. Results and information on individual students is not reported. This protects both the privacy of participating students and the validity of responses obtained from students.

You can view a sample report here.

Won't this test lead to school rankings?

The PISA-Based Test for Schools and its results are not meant to be interpreted or used as school rankings or for “league tables”. Rankings can be counterproductive to school-improvement efforts because they do not give the school community (headteachers/principals, teachers, students and parents) an active voice as agents of improvement and innovation.

Individual school results will be confidential between NFER, the school and OECD. School reports will only be shared with any third parties (such as Academy chains) with the written agreement of the school.

Isn't there already too much testing?

The PISA-Based Test is voluntary for schools that are interested in international benchmarking and improving their student outcomes. It is not intended to be used for mandated or accountability purposes. The assessment is not meant to take learning time away from students and classrooms; rather, it is a learning experience for teachers and students that can prompt discussions on the types of knowledge, skills and competencies that are relevant in a quickly changing world.

What are the important things to consider when using this assessment as a tool for school improvement?

Performance needs to be considered not in absolute terms, but in terms of equity and relative effectiveness of schools.

Many schools are successful in providing their students with the skills and knowledge that enable them to compete with peers from the best education systems in the world, and some are even able to do so with students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is also clear, however, that there is room for improvement among high-performing schools as well as those that may be underachieving. Schools with performance results that place them at the very top in comparison with other schools in the UK and in other countries should not see the tool simply as a means to “validate” their excellence for publicity purposes; whilst the report may give valid and just cause for celebration, it can also be seen as a means to strive for even higher levels of performance for all students. At the same time, school staff and students in underperforming schools should be encouraged to know that improvement is not only possible, but within their reach and ability.

International benchmarking supported by the school assessment and reports should be seen as a process.

The information on students’ achievement, their engagement, and the teaching and learning environment at participating schools can stimulate further reflection and discussion among school staff and local authorities (LAs)/education boards. Peer-to-peer learning opportunities and the sharing of effective practices are the logical next step in the process of international benchmarking for improvement. The wealth of PISA results and related OECD research and resources (reports, videos and publications) are easily accessible through e-report provided to schools and their active hyperlinks. Users of the PISA-Based Test for Schools assessment are encouraged to explore these and other resources in the search for excellence and best practices.

Although schools and LAs/education boards are encouraged to openly share and discuss their results with the local education community (school staff, students and parents), they are in no way obliged to do so by choosing to use the assessment.

The assessment is designed to be a tool for school improvement, not a tool for developing ranking or league tables. The tool measures student performance to inform, not penalise, schools and to support improvement locally.

Performance should also be considered in the context of the quality of the learning environment at schools.

In addition to reviewing the school-level estimates of student performance, schools and local authorities/federations/school networks are also invited to consider the information about teacher-student relations, disciplinary climate, and students’ attitudes and engagement towards learning that are provided in the school reports. Effective teaching for better student outcomes, both cognitive and non-cognitive, is not uni-dimensional or captured by a single data point. Users of the assessment are encouraged to consider the multiple factors that influence performance that are covered in the school reports.

In the future, we hope that the PISA-Based Test for Schools can provide important peer-to-peer learning opportunities – locally, nationally and internationally – as well as the opportunity to share good practices to help identify “what works”.

Will an individual school's results be published anywhere?

No the results will not be published. However, schools and LAs/federations/school networks are invited to share and discuss their results as they see fit with the local education community (school staff, students and parents), but they are in no way obliged to do so by choosing to use the assessment.

NFER and OECD will have copies of each school’s report, but they will not publish these or make them available to other parties unless specific permission has been gained.

Who can I share my PISA-Based Test for Schools results with?

Schools may wish to share and discuss their results with the local education community (governors, school staff, students and parents). You may also wish to share your results with other schools in your local authority (LA) /federations/school network as a starting point for discussions around best practice and ‘what works’.

What is the relationship between the PISA-Based Test for Schools and PISA?

While the international PISA assessment is intended to provide national results that can be used for international comparisons and to inform policy discussions, the PISA-Based Test for Schools is designed to provide school-level results for benchmarking and school-improvement purposes.

The school-level assessment complements the main PISA study by making PISA-Based results even more accessible to a wider audience, empowering local educators to participate in and contribute to policy debates in their countries.

The PISA-Based Test for Schools was designed and based on the same assessment frameworks as the main PISA studies, but the assessments are different. One of the main differences is that the PISA-Based Test for Schools is designed to provide results for individual schools and not to provide aggregate national or system-level results. Given this difference, participation in one assessment should not be confused with the other. The test that students take in participating schools provides results that are comparable to the international PISA scales when administered under appropriate conditions – even though they are not national PISA scores per se.

The comparability of the results is what allows schools to see how they compare in relation to their peers in some of world’s leading education systems.

Can any schools take part?

Yes, any school that is able to adhere to the testing window and conditions is able to participate. See the terms and conditions here.

What are the conditions for conducting the PISA-Based Test for Schools?

NFER has been appointed by OECD to deliver the Pisa-Based Test for schools in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the British Channel Islands.

NFER will work with schools to ensure that the appropriate quality standards and procedures are followed in preparation for administering the test and on the day of testing. We will take a random sample of 84 fifteen year olds students from your register to sit the study, in line with the international PISA assessment. 80% or more of these students must take part in the assessment to be able to produce the E-book report.

See terms and conditions here.

How does the assessment take place?

For the assessment, students respond to approximately two hours of test questions in reading, mathematics and science and answer a 35-minute student questionnaire that is an important part of the assessment.

Overall, the testing experience for a student lasts approximately three to three-and-a-half hours, including instructions and break periods.

Schools will need to provide a contact person and pupil data to NFER to facilitate the testing and accommodation for up to 84 students to take the study in examination conditions. School contacts will be fully briefed by NFER on their responsibilities and the requirements of the PISA-Based Test for Schools.

NFER will provide test administrators to administer the tests and questionnaires in your school. All marking will be carried out by NFER staff.

80% or more of the sampled students must take part in the assessment to be able to produce your school report. If this is achieved, your school report will be delivered to you within eight weeks of the end of the testing period, via NFER’s secure school portal.

We have an in-house school focussed helpline that will support your school through the process should any queries arise.

When will the results be ready for the school?

The PISA-Based Test for Schools operates to a strict timeline from the date of order to administration of the tests in schools and to delivery of the final school report. Please see the dates and steps section.

How useful will my school's PISA-Based Test for Schools report be?

Your report is designed to help you better understand the extent to which students in your school are equipped with the skills needed in today’s global economy, and to stimulate the reflection and discussion that can inform school self-assessment and improvement.

It will provide your school with useful, reliable, objective data that will complement and extend your existing data, in order that you can evaluate the outcomes and use them constructively to improve the educational experience in your school. It will allow you to explore your schoolsf’ outcomes in some detail and the outcomes will be accompanied by examples of strategies, policies, practices and outcomes from education systems around the world, which you can use to support critical reflection and stimulate discussion in search of excellence.

In this way, your report will complement and enhance your school’s other monitoring measures, aiding your within-school development and supporting your accountability activities. It can be a useful addition to the evidence you present for inspection, a helpful tool underpinning discussion with your local education managers (e.g. local authority, education board, academy chain, or other trustees), and an aid in professional conversations with your own staff and with other schools in your network/federation.

What analysis will I be able to see on my results?

Your school report will contain comprehensive analysis of your schools’ performance in reading, mathematics and science against national and international norms, along with analysis by key characteristics, analysis of students’ views of the learning environment and their self-efficacy within it, links to research evidence on what works, and descriptions of how to interpret the analyses. There will be an executive summary in the report to help you see the highlights. Because the participating 15-year-old students will have been randomly sampled, you will be able to generalise the results in your report to the whole population of 15-year-olds in your school.

Further information about the report is here.

How can I use these results to inform my teaching and learning?

Your report will enable you to understand how well your students compare with their peers nationally and around the world, in terms of a globally-based assessment (rather than a curriculum-specific assessment). This will help you set locally-appropriate targets to meet your students’ present and future needs (whether these are within or beyond local and national expectations). Targets might, for example: relate to raising achievement in all or some of the subjects assessed; add value in terms of socio-economic background; draw lessons from the assessed subjects that can be transferred to other curriculum areas; relate to approaches to teaching transferable skills; address the needs of a subset of students; aim to improve students’ perceptions and attitudes (e.g. in relation to their confidence and motivation); or address the learning environment, celebrating strengths and exploring areas that might be developed further.

By using your school’s report to start a professional conversation about needs within your context, you can find ways to meet local needs and extend your school’s existing successes. The resulting improvements might be transformative or incremental. Nevertheless, set in the local context and guided by a wider perspective, they can assist your students in achieving their potential to an internationally competitive standard.

How could a group of schools use these assessments?

Peer-to-peer learning opportunities and the sharing of effective practices are useful tools in the process of using international benchmarking for improvement. Your school might have participated in the PISA-Based Test for Schools as part of a network or federation but, even if it has not, you may still choose to share your findings with other schools, or with key stakeholders in your school (such as your local authority/education board or academy provider, governing body/governing board/trustees, parents, and your students). They might have insights that vary from your own, which could prompt further useful development points, or further avenues for consideration, ultimately helping to strengthen your school’s performance.

The ideas outlined for using your results to improve teaching and learning could be useful to also explore with your partners and stakeholders and could, in the case of partner schools, be supplemented by conversations about similarities and differences in outcomes across the network/federation, possible reasons for these, and potentially useful strategies for improvement arising. The background research findings given in your report(s) could also inform your discussions and might provide additional starting points for further exploring areas of interest.

How could the PISA-Based Test for Schools be useful for school self-assessment?

External inspection or validation processes will typically review the quality of your school’s provision, student outcomes, and your school’s leadership. They may also look at your school’s planning for improvement and its capacity to effect change. Your PISA-Based Test for Schools report can support your preparation for inspection/validation, and your ongoing self-evaluation in all of these areas.

Your report will complement other types of evidence you use in your school’s self-evaluation and inspection/validation processes, providing a richer picture of life in your school and a broader/deeper analysis of matters arising and strategies adopted to address them. In showing that you have analysed information from multiple sources, you will be able to demonstrate your school’s willingness to engage in evaluation of key areas, and its commitment to improvement.

Given that the PISA-Based Test for Schools assesses different aspects of learning compared with other assessments, your report may validate and add different detail to some conclusions about the breadth and depth of attainment in your school, enabling you to present a strong case for the school’s effectiveness and/or the rationale for any developmental targets adopted. Conversely, any areas of evidence in your report that conflict with pre-existing evidence will provide an alternative perspective based on the different information gathered, and this may provide a supporting rationale for other developmental targets or changes proposed. In either case, your use of your school’s report will indicate that school leaders are committed to improvement and are evaluating widely and with care, and any occasion where your school’s PISA-Based Test for Schools report stimulates a professional conversation may be useful evidence of self-evaluation and the desire to improve.

The exact nature of the supporting evidence your school may draw upon from your report will vary depending on the specific outcomes for your school.

Can I take part in a PISA-based test for schools if my school has been selected for PISA 2015 or another international study?

If your school has been selected for an international comparison study such as OECD Programme in International Student Assessment (PISA) or IEA Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) you can, if you wish, still sign up for the PISA-Based Test for Schools service.

However, you will still be expected to participate in the international study for which your school has been selected. International studies such as PISA and TIMSS are an important source of information which help to shape education policy and are valued by school leaders and teachers. Study organisers set rigorous requirements for the studies to ensure that all countries choose a representative selection of schools.

In England, the Department For Education (DFE) works to recruit schools to the studies on a voluntary basis. In the event that too few schools agree to participate, then the Secretary of State has a statutory power to direct them to do so.