Mike Kueber's Blog

February 10, 2014

Program for International Students Assessment (PISA)

Filed under: Education — Mike Kueber @ 5:23 pm

While writing about Amanda Ripley’s book on education policy, I said the following about a test called Program for International Student Assessment:

  • Ripley’s principal means of analysis is an international test – Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) – that is given every three years to 15-year olds in 70 countries.  It measures reading, science, and math skills.  Because PISA is designed to test critical-thinking skills (not curriculum-centered knowledge) in a way that translates fairly from one country to the next, the results are highly relevant not only to showing progress over a time period, but also to showing success relative to other countries.

PISA self-describes its test a bit more eloquently:

  • PISA is unique because it develops tests which are not directly linked to the school curriculum. The tests are designed to assess to what extent students at the end of compulsory education, can apply their knowledge to real-life situations and be equipped for full participation in society.

In her book, Ripley is able to provide a vivid description because PISA allowed her to actually take the exam.  In the two examples that she provides:

  1. A graph shows that robberies from one year to the next have gone from 507 to 515.  The change seems to be magnified because the graph starts at 500 and goes up to 525.  Based on the graph, a reporter concludes that there was a huge increase in robberies.  The question is whether the reporter reasonably interpreted the information.
  2. A Human Resources flyer is shown.  The creator of the flyer had been instructed to design it to be friendly and encouraging.   The question is, after considering layout, style of writing, pictures and graphics, did the creator of the flyer succeed.

Ripley also mentioned there were questions relating to understanding the fine print of a health insurance policy and comparing fees for checking accounts.

The PISA website also provides some examples.  I successfully completed a few, including the following two:

  1. A revolving door includes three wings which rotate within a circular-shaped space.  The door makes 4 complete rotations in a minute. There is room for a maximum of two people in each of the three door sectors.  What is the maximum number of people that can enter the building through the door in 30 minutes?
  2. The Gotemba walking trail up Mount Fuji is about 9 kilometres (km) long. Walkers need to return from the 18 km walk by 8 pm. Toshi estimates that he can walk up the mountain at 1.5 kilometres per hour on average, and down at twice that speed. These speeds take into account meal breaks and rest times. Using Toshi’s estimated speeds, what is the latest time he can begin his walk so that he can return by 8 pm?

I was pretty quickly able to get to the correct answers (720 and 11 am), but was disappointed to learn that far fewer than half of the test-takers worldwide got the first answer correct and fewer than 20% got the second answer correct.  My sentiments mirrored Ripley’s:

  • After I left the building, my sense of relief faded.  My score (she missed only one question), I realized, did not bode well for teenagers in my own country.  This test was not easy, but it wasn’t hard, either.  On one question that I’d gotten right, only 18% of American fifteen-year-olds were with me.  There were other questions like that, which many or most of the Finns and the Koreans were getting right, just as I was, but most young Americans were getting wrong.

This 61-question test is so fascinating because it is directed toward the ability to use your education in a practical manner, your ability to engage effectively in the modern world.  When people can use their critical thinking, our need for a nanny government is diminished.  That is why Ripley and I are both worried for America.




  1. Me, too! Those are fairly simple questions but they do require critical thinking and/or problem solving skills. Which is what we should be teaching, but are not. In fact, most American students are taught not to think, but rather to regurgitate very specific facts and ideas. It seems that much of our youngsters’ education is now primarily memory based, rather than thought based. With computers in most pockets, long-term memory is one of the last skills that today’s students require.

    Comment by Bob Bevard — February 10, 2014 @ 5:51 pm | Reply

  2. The answer of 720 for that Revolving Door question is incorrect. The question clearly asked how many people can **enter** the building in 30 minutes.
    The only way one can arrive at a result of 720 is to assume that all 3 cells are occupied by people entering the building.
    Anyone who has used a revolving door, or can draw a series of diagrams, knows the cell just vacated remains empty until it faces the street entry – in this case after 5 seconds.
    If one accepts the ridiculous situation that 2 people, who are already inside the building, enter each cell at the same that 2 (other) people exit that cell and remain there for the entire revolution and re-enter the building, then the maximum number of 720 can be achieved. But this is contrived and does not meet the PISA criterion for assessing real event situations.
    Simple thinking is required: In each revolution, the outgoing cell does not contain people entering (genuinely) the building. So maximum traffic capacity (of 720) is reduced by one-third. Of these two-thirds of 720, over a 30 minute period there is one cell (2 people) who are still “in transit” and have not fully entered the building.
    Think of a Ferris Wheel as a reasonable analogy

    Comment by gmcguire — May 27, 2015 @ 12:26 am | Reply

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