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).

The project, which began in 2000, focuses on the capabilities of 15-year-olds as they near the end of compulsory education. Administered every three years, it reports on reading, mathematical, and scientific literacy, and provides a more detailed look at one of those domains in the years when it is the major focus. As a major focus, the domain is tested in greater depth, and takes up roughly one half of the total testing time. The major domain in 2018 was reading, as it was in 2000 and 2009. Mathematics was the major domain in 2003 and 2012, and science was the major domain in 2006 and 2015. Students’ proficiency in an innovative domain is also assessed in each cycle. In 2018, the innovative domain was global competence—that is, students’ ability to interact with the wider world around them. PISA 2022 will have mathematics as the major domain, reading and science as the minor domains, and creative thinking as the innovative domain. 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, 65 in 2009 and 2012, and 72 in 2015. In the latest PISA cycle, in 2018, 79 countries/economies participated. Canada has participated in PISA since its inception, through a partnership between CMEC and Employment and Social Development 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, Manitoba, Alberta, and British Columbia. Currently, Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut do not participate in PISA, nor do Indigenous students from band-operated schools.

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 to 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.

One other domain—financial literacy—was included in the PISA 2015 and 2018 cycles, and was administered as an option in some countries, including some Canadian provinces. From 2015 onwards, PISA was 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, and provides an indication of the knowledge and skills they have acquired—as well as 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 for educational success.

PISA results

On an international level, Canada has performed very well in all of the PISA assessments. For example, in the 2018 assessment, Canadian 15-year-olds placed well above the OECD average, and were among the top performers in reading. Of the 79 countries and economies that participated in the assessment, only three—Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang (B-S-J-Z) (China), Singapore, and Macao (China)—outperformed Canada.

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