Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

These FAQs have been compiled from the most common questions asked by schools. If you would like to discuss any aspect of the study please feel free to contact the PISA Support Team.

1) What is PISA?

PISA is the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment. Every three years PISA tests 15-year-old pupils from all over the world in reading, mathematics and science. The tests are designed to gauge how well the pupils master key subjects in order to be prepared for real-life situations in the adult world. More information can be found here and on the OECD’s PISA website.

2) Why do England, Wales and Northern Ireland take part in PISA?

PISA is an international education survey that measures the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds. It builds the national picture of pupil achievement of this age group, with implications for local and national policy and developments.

PISA helps us to understand how well pupils can apply knowledge and skills in reading, science and mathematics to analyse, reason and communicate effectively as they examine, interpret and solve problems. The study also collects valuable information on pupils’ attitudes and motivations to help understand how they contribute to pupil performance.

PISA provides an opportunity to compare achievement internationally and encourages countries to learn from each other, creating fairer and more inclusive school systems. So far, more than 80 countries and economies have taken part in providing a rich set of data for comparisons.

(N.B. Scotland also participates in PISA)

3) What are the benefits of taking part in the study?

– The schools and pupils that participate in PISA are making a valuable contribution to the understanding of our education system and it is only with this participation that we can realise the opportunities that PISA brings to improve our educational policies and practices.

– By participating in PISA your school and pupils are contributing to a worldwide evidence base that can inform policies and strategies to help address the challenges associated with raising standards and reducing attainment gaps.

– The study also provides insights into areas such as social and gender equality, and attitudes to learning, allowing policy-makers to learn from best practice within the UK and

– PISA enables comparison of pupil’s attainment together with their background and attitudes to school and learning.

– Pupils can practise their assessment skills in a study for which no prior preparation is needed.

– Your pupils will have the opportunity to represent their country in an international study involving over 80 countries.

4) What is a Field Trial?

The Field Trial enables the PISA 2021 assessments and processes to be trialled with a sample of schools and pupils prior to the main study. Lessons learned from the Field Trial can be used to improve the assessments and questionnaires in the main study – it is, therefore, a very important and influential part of the study.

5) When does the study take place?

The Field Trial will take place between Monday 2nd March and Friday 10th April 2020.

In the welcome letter, addressed to your Headteacher or Principal, a date was given for the study to be conducted at your school. We hope that this date is convenient for your staff and pupils and that suitable room(s) can be made available. If for any reason this date is not suitable, your PISA School Coordinator can contact our PISA Support Team to suggest three alternative dates between 2 March – 10 April 2020 for the study to take place. Our PISA Support Team will reply to confirm a new date.

6) Can I choose which pupils take part in the study?

No – a random sampling process will be used to select 67 pupils from your school born in 2004 (aged 15 and 16 years). We expect most pupils will be from year 11 (year 12 in Northern Ireland) and some from year 10 (year 11 in Northern Ireland). All pupils in the chosen sample will then take part in the study, however, pupils with Special Educational Needs or EHC plans can, in certain circumstances, be excluded by the school.

You will be informed of the pupils chosen as soon as the sampling is complete, and you will have the opportunity to notify us if the test would not be appropriate for any of your pupils.

7) What does the assessment consist of?

The PISA study comprises a two-hour computer-based assessment in which pupils answer multiple-choice and open-ended questions on mathematics, science and reading. Each pupil will take different combinations of test items from within a larger question bank.

In PISA 2021, the focus area will be mathematics. The tests are designed to capture how pupils master certain skills such as reading strategies, problem-solving in mathematics and critical thinking in science; skills that are important beyond the classroom. Examples of PISA test questions can be found here.

Pupils are also asked to complete an online questionnaire about themselves, their attitudes to learning and their use of ICT. The questionnaire should take around 30-40 minutes.

There is also a School questionnaire that we ask the Headteacher or Principal (or member of the SLT) to complete online. This should be completed before the assessment date, and no later than the assessment day itself.

8) How long will the study take?

On the day of the assessment, we will require pupils for around 3 hours. Most schools aim to complete the study by lunch, though we can make arrangements to start later.

The assessment lasts 2 hours. After a 5-10 minute break, pupils will be asked to complete the online questionnaire, which will take around 30-40 minutes.

Our Test Administrator will arrive at least an hour before your chosen start time to prepare the room. The School Coordinator should aim to arrive at the same time. Parking on the school premises is welcomed if available.

The school questionnaire can be completed in advance online. Instructions on how to access the questionnaire will be sent to the School Coordinator to distribute. This questionnaire takes about an hour to complete.

9) Will school staff be required to invigilate the study?

No, the National Centre (Pearson) will provide a Test Administrator who will visit the school on the assessment day and have responsibility for running the study. Test Administrators are experienced education professionals, often ex-teachers, and all have DBS clearance/Access NI clearance.

However, we do ask that a member of the school staff stays in the room during the assessment.

10) What facilities are required?

Each pupil will need to take the assessment on a laptop or PC in a room that is quiet and free from distraction. Each pupil will need a laptop or PC for a duration of 3 hours (up to 67 pupils will be participating). The room should have enough plug sockets for the pupils’ laptops to be plugged in and charged when running low.

11) Will I need to set up IT facilities and wi-fi for my pupils to take the tests?

Yes – The assessments are online and so wi-fi/an internet connection will be required for pupils to access both the assessment and the questionnaire. We will liaise closely with your nominated School Coordinator and IT Coordinator ahead of the assessment day to ensure that the IT facilities in your school are set up correctly. Some testing of the system will need to take place ahead of the assessment day. The tests will be accessed over the internet using a secure login. We also ask that your IT Coordinator is available on the assessment day to assist with any issues that may arise.

12) What are the main duties of the PISA School Coordinator?

The person you appoint as PISA School Coordinator should ideally be able to undertake the main duties as outlined below:

– Being the main point of contact for Pearson and for the PISA Test Administrator.

– Working with Pearson to confirm details of all eligible pupils and then those sampled to participate.

– Informing pupils and parents of the study (template letters will be provided).

– On the assessment day, supporting the PISA Test Administrator (see Next Steps document, section four ‘Day of the study’).

The Next Steps document provides more detailed information on the duties of the PISA School Coordinator.

13) Do pupils need to bring anything or prepare?

No prior preparation or work is required for pupils to be able to complete the assessment and minimal administration is required from school staff.

Pupils should bring a calculator and a book to read quietly in the event of finishing the assessment early.

14) What if a pupil does not want to answer a particular question?

Pupils are encouraged to do their best when answering the assessment questions to demonstrate what they know and can do. In the questionnaire, pupils are encouraged to give honest answers, with the knowledge that their responses will remain confidential throughout the process. However, pupils may refrain from answering any question/s they do not feel comfortable answering.

15) Will results remain confidential?

Yes – pupil and school identities will be anonymised and all data will remain confidential and only shared with the study organiser, the OECD, via secure channels.

16) Will my school’s PISA results be published?

No – the PISA data collected from your school will be analysed alongside that of other schools in the country and in other participating nations. Findings of each country are published in an international report by the OECD, and national reports will be written by academics at the University of Oxford in 2022. The results of individual schools or pupils will not be published.

17) How will the study protect the data we collect?

We take data protection very seriously and follow the Data Protection Act 2018 and General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR). Any personal information we collect will be held securely and no individual pupil or school will be identified or identifiable in any report or publication. We will only hold the PISA data long enough to allow the analysis and reporting of the study after which we will delete the data from our systems.

18) Why do I have sixteen your olds in my school sample?

The target population for the PISA assessment is 15-year-olds but for the field trial pupils born in 2004 (aged 15 and 16 years) will be included in your sample. We expect most pupils will be from year 11 (year 12 for Northern Ireland) and some from year 10 (year 11 for Northern Ireland).

19) How will pupils and parents/guardians be informed about the study?

We will provide template letters for you to send to pupils taking part in the study and their parents/guardians. These templates will be emailed to you so you can edit them as necessary and print or distribute electronically. We will also provide you with letters on data privacy (one for pupils and one for parents) which must be sent to pupils and their parents/guardians and should not be altered. Letters should be sent once we have confirmed the pupils taking part in the study (not before).

To find out more, parents/guardians and pupils can be directed to this dedicated website that we have set up for PISA 2021 specifically for participants in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

20) Where can I get support/ further information?

The PISA Support Team can be reached Monday to Friday between 8am-4pm on 020 7190 4350 or by email on

For more general information about PISA, please access the OECD’s PISA website.