How are UK pupils measured against children in other countries?

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Three major surveys which measure pupil achievement worldwide are TIMSS, PIRLS and PISA.

TIMSS: Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, first conducted in 1995, reports every four years on the maths and science achievement of fourth grade (year 5, age 10) and eighth grade (year 9, age 14) pupils worldwide. For 2007 and 2011 results see faq about whether the UK is "plummeting" down league tables.

PIRLS: Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, first conducted in 2001, reports every five years on the reading achievement of fourth grade (year 5) pupils worldwide.  PIRLS targets primary school pupils and assesses the reading skills needed to make the transition to “reading to learn.”  For 2011 results see faq about whether the UK is "plummeting" down league tables.

PISA:  Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) measures the knowledge and skills of 15 year-olds in reading, maths and science.  PISA tests, first conducted in 2000, are taken every three years.  Each PISA survey has a particular focus:  in 2009 it was reading, 2006 was science.  The focus of the 2012 PISA tests will be maths.  In the UK only the results for 2006 and 2009 are valid.  OECD found the response rate for 2003 was too small and on checking the 2000 results, which had previously been published, OECD found that these, too, were flawed.  OECD has warned, therefore, that the 2000 PISA results for the UK should not be used for comparison.  The government has ignored this warning and continues to compare the 2000 figures with those of 2009 to show English state education in a negative light despite the fact the UK pupils achieved the OECD average in reading and maths, and were above average for science.  In late 2012 the UK Statistics Authority expressed "concern" about the Government's use of PISA figures.  For further details see the faq about whether the UK is "plummeting" down league tables.

Both PISA and PIRLS focus on an expanded idea of reading, ie “reading literacy” rather than simply “reading”.  Both surveys regard reading “as an interactive, constructive process and emphasise the importance of students’ ability to reflect on reading and to use reading for different purposes”.  PISA and PIRLS do not just test decoding in the way that the Year One Phonics Screening test does.

Updated 1 January 2013