PISA for Schools vs PISA: understanding the differences

Sara Ratner|November 4, 2021

You could be forgiven for hearing the term ‘PISA for Schools’ and assuming that it’s referring to the three-yearly PISA survey of 15-year-old students from schools in more than 80 countries. For more than two decades, the incredibly high-profile PISA assessment by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has been providing comparative data on school students’ performance across reading, mathematics and science. Its results are closely watched by media, politicians and teachers alike, and its revelations often inform education policy at national level.

However, did you know there’s another OECD assessment, with a little less prominence yet exponential value to individual schools working towards improved outcomes? It’s called PISA for Schools.

Based on the gold standard PISA frameworks and international scales, PISA for Schools is a school-level study that allows schools to benchmark themselves against other schools in the same country as well as internationally, and take decisive action towards achieving their objectives. The test empowers schools and school leaders with a holistic “health check” of their school’s academic performance, teaching environment and social-emotional skills – a unique point of difference from what’s offered by most other school assessments.

Increasingly schools are making the choice to assess themselves via PISA for Schools as part of a school improvement plan: and sometimes, simply to open a view into their learning environments and hold themselves accountable.

Let’s dig deeper.

PISA and PISA for Schools: Two unique tests

There are several key differences between the two, including:

1. School-level, not country-level

PISA empowers governments to make informed decisions around education policy, strategy and funding. PISA for Schools empowers schools themselves, with evidence-based analysis of their students’ academic performance. Both are based on the same frameworks and scales, which means that the results are comparable. Individual schools participating in PISA for Schools can just as easily benchmark their performance against national education systems from around the world as they can with the top-performing local schools. This offers schools a more granular insight than the PISA country-by-country tables and a chance to compare like with like – it’s an extraordinary opportunity for a school in outback Australia, for example, to compare itself to similar schools in regional parts of other countries facing the same challenges. Likewise, a school topping the national results can raise the stakes to measure its success compared to like schools in other similar countries. No other test in the world offers this type or quality of data.

2. More than reading, mathematics and science

While the PISA for Schools test measures students’ cognitive skills in reading, mathematics and science, it also goes a step further. It measures students’ proficiency in these areas in terms of the type of knowledge, skills and competencies that will equip learners for further education and give them advantages in the world of work, via scenario-based questions. The student questionnaire also provides direct insights and feedback on the learning climate within a school, and students’ motivation, making it ideal for those institutions that not only want to ensure great learning outcomes, but a positive culture.

3. Low stakes

PISA for Schools results remain completely confidential to the school, providing valuable school-level feedback that isn’t published in the media or anywhere else – just quality data to drive improvement. Students don’t need to prepare, so the pressure is off. Because there are no league tables, principals don’t need to be concerned that results will reflect negatively on their overall standing in the community, so the pressure is off for them too. The school is the sole owner of their data, and it decides what, and how much, to communicate with its communities in the pursuit of its goals.

4. Actionable insights

Both tests provide actionable data – PISA at country level; PISA for Schools at school level. PISA for Schools gives feedback to individual schools, along with tailored guidance. Schools that invest in this test are also investing in post-assessment activities designed to unpack the results for them and direct them towards meaningful actions. Upon completion of the test, each school is invited to a post-assessment webinar to talk through their results report. Another one of the most compelling benefits of taking part is that every teacher at every participating school receives a unique login to the PISA for Schools online community portal where they can share experiences and swap best practices with their peers in other schools: locally, nationally and even overseas.

5. Dynamic data

PISA for Schools is available annually on demand unlike PISA which is a triennial assessment. This means that PISA for Schools is dynamic and constantly adjusting to current circumstances, which makes it great for schools facing high-priority pressures like COVID-19 school closures. In fact, the Global Crises Module, endorsed by UNESCO, is a good example. It was rapidly developed to provide a systematic assessment of the impact of COVID-19 – on factors such as the personal and environmental obstacles students were facing; for example, in households where stay at home orders meant that older children had to take responsibility for caring for younger siblings. PISA for Schools has essentially fast-tracked the OECD’s ability to deliver this module.

6. Make a case for incremental funding

It’s well worth noting the popularity of PISA for Schools among schools who plan to get in front of their board and prompt local policy to provide them with additional financial support. Because the school level test is based on the widely respected OECD PISA frameworks and scales, its data carries the same gravitas. Importantly, however, PISA for Schools delivers the additional granularity required to support a credible business case. In the words of world-renowned management consultant and author Peter Drucker: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”.

When to consider PISA for Schools

PISA for Schools was devised to be an instrument for providing schools with a rounded picture of learners and their learning environments. As such, its insights reach far beyond indicating the attainment of core academic standards such as reading, mathematics and science – these insights also encompass well-being, culture and other important facets of education.

PISA has been helping to shape educational reform around the world for decades. Now, PISA for Schools empowers individual schools, whether private or public, with the means to challenge issues and have a genuine impact on students’ opportunities: whether that entails accessing further education or taking the first steps to forge their career path.

Contact us to register your school or to speak with a consultant about how PISA for Schools can benefit your community.


About the Author

Sara Ratner

Group Executive – OECD PISA for Schools, Janison

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