Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an international assessment of the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students; in addition, it provides information about a range of factors that contribute to the success of students, schools, and education systems. PISA is a collaborative effort among member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

PISA covers three domains — reading, mathematics, and science. Although each assessment includes questions from all three domains, the focus shifts. In 2000, the emphasis was on reading, with mathematics and science as minor domains. In 2003, mathematics was the major domain, and in 2006, it was science. In 2009, the focus was again reading, and in 2012, mathematics. In the assessment of 2015, the focus will again be science. The repetition of the assessments at regular intervals yields timely data that can be compared internationally and over time.

As PISA is an international assessment, it measures skills that are generally recognized as key outcomes of the educational process. Rather than testing on facts, the assessment focuses on young people near the end of compulsory schooling and their ability to use their knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges.


International participation in PISA has grown steadily — from 32 countries/economies in 2000 to 41 in 2003, 57 in 2006, and 65 in 2009. In the latest PISA cycle, in 2012, there were 65 countries/economies participating, including 34 OECD Member countries. In 2015, approximately 70 countries/economies are planning to participate. Canada has participated in PISA since its inception, through a partnership among CMEC, Employment and Social Development Canada, and Statistics Canada.

All 10 provinces have participated in each assessment. Approximately 20,000 Canadian students from about 1,000 schools have taken part in each PISA assessment in either English or French. Schools and the students within schools are selected randomly for participation. This large sample size allows results to be reported for each province, as well as for both the French- and English-language school systems in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, and Manitoba.

The results are valid only on the pan-Canadian and provincial levels. No results are attributed to individual schools or students. PISA does not assess individual student achievement.

The assessment

In addition to two hours of direct assessment of reading, mathematics, and science, students in Canada complete a background questionnaire about themselves and their homes, about information and communication technology, and about their school experiences, work activities, and relationships with others. School principals complete a separate questionnaire.

In order to determine the content of the assessment, experts from OECD Member countries developed definitions for each domain, which guided the preparation of the testing instruments:

  • Reading literacy: The capacity to understand, use, and reflect on written texts in order to achieve one's goals and potential, develop knowledge, and participate in society.
  • Mathematics literacy: The capacity to identify, understand, and engage in mathematics, and make well-founded judgments about the role that mathematics plays in the private, occupational, and social lives of constructive, concerned, and reflective citizens.
  • Scientific literacy: The capacity to use scientific knowledge, identify questions, and draw evidence-based conclusions in order to understand and help make decisions about the natural world and the changes made to it through human activity.

Two other domains were included in the PISA 2012 cycle: computer-based problem solving; and financial literacy, which was administered as an option in some countries. In 2012, Canada participated in the problem-solving assessment, but not financial literacy.

In PISA 2015, science will again be the major domain, with mathematics, reading, and collaborative problem solving as minor domains. Financial literacy will also be assessed in a number of provinces. PISA 2015 will be completely computerized.

The benefits of PISA

Canada invests significant public resources in the provision of elementary and secondary education, and Canadians are concerned about the quality of education provided by schools. The skills acquired by the end of secondary school are the essential foundation for further learning and for meeting the social and economic challenges of the future. PISA examines the level of achievement of 15-year-olds, providing an indication of the knowledge and skills they have acquired and their preparedness for continuing their studies or entering the workforce.

Results from PISA are valuable to educators, governments, social-policy analysts, and advocacy groups. Comparative information helps in the evaluation of the effectiveness of existing programs and practices, as well as in the understanding of the influences of socioeconomic and other factors on educational success.

PISA results

On an international level, Canada has performed very well in all of the PISA assessments:

  • In the 2009 reading assessment, only Shanghai-China, Korea, Finland, and Hong Kong-China performed significantly better than Canada did.
  • In the 2006 science assessment, only Finland and Hong Kong-China had significantly higher scores than Canada did.
  • In the 2003 mathematics assessment, once again, only Finland and Hong Kong-China performed significantly better than Canada did.
  • In the 2000 reading assessment, only Finland scored significantly higher than Canada did.