Top 10 lessons from PISA and PIRLS

Issue: Volume 98, Number 20

Posted: 22 November 2019
Reference #: 1HA2zv

New Zealand began participating in two major international education research programmes – the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) – around 20 years ago. What have we learned so far?

PISA and PIRLS are two international comparative studies that are important for monitoring the performance of New Zealand’s education system, identifying both strengths and weaknesses. After approximately two decades of New Zealand’s participation in these programmes, it is timely to reflect on some of the many key learnings.

System level performance

  1. Since 2000, the average performance of New Zealand 15-year-old students has been better than the OECD average in each of reading, maths and science.
  2. In 2015, relative to their performance in reading, maths and science, New Zealand students have stronger-than-expected collaborative problem-solving skills and scored well above the OECD average. Only Singapore, Japan, and Hong Kong China had significantly higher average results. In 2003 New Zealand students also performed very well at problem-solving, scoring above the OECD average with only 3 countries scoring higher.
  3. Since 2001, our Year 5 students have generally achieved higher than the international average in reading, but after a decade of relative stability there was a slight weakening in reading achievement between 2010 and 2015. Literary reading tends to be an area of strength for our Year 5 students, and they show stronger performance when using reasoning comprehension strategies than skills such as retrieving information.

    Instructional practices

  4. New Zealand teachers use effective practices to develop their Year 5 students’ reading comprehension. Compared with other majority English-language countries, there are some points of difference. They are more likely to teach their students critiquing skills to use when they read digitally, teach reading in same-ability groups, and have their students  to read silently on their own. They are less likely to teach new vocabulary systematically or use longer fiction chapter books as part of their reading instruction.
  5. New Zealand 15-year-old students are more likely to have a science teacher who gives regular feedback and adapts lessons to meet student needs, compared with students in the OECD on average.

    Student behaviours, attitudes and beliefs

  6. New Zealand Year 5 students have been found to be reasonably positive about reading but are much less confident about their reading than their international peers.
  7. Year 5 students have a relatively high sense of belonging compared with their international peers, but they are more likely to report that they frequently experience bullying, and more than 15-year-old students. At both levels of schooling New Zealand has one of the highest rates of bullying relative to other countries, which has been true for Year 5 students since the early 2000s.
  8. In 2015, 15-year-olds in New Zealand reported reasonably high awareness of key environmental problems, although it was low relative to most other countries. New Zealand students’ awareness of environmental problems fell between 2006 and 2015, coinciding with a drop in science performance over the same period.


  9. In New Zealand there are generally large differences in student performance between socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged students, signalling low educational equity. When combined with other data sources, New Zealand’s inequity in educational achievement starts early and persists – it doesn’t shrink or grow, unlike some other countries.
  10. Internationally, the difference in reading achievement between primary schools with students from mainly socio-economically advantaged backgrounds and those with mainly disadvantaged backgrounds tends to be high compared with many countries. According to PISA, the average New Zealand secondary school has students with a wider range of maths, science and reading literacy levels compared to the average school in OECD countries. Differences in performance between secondary schools are not as large in New Zealand as in other countries.

What is PISA?

PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) is an international study that began in the year 2000. It aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year old students in participating countries. In 2015, over 70 countries and economies participated in PISA.

PISA assesses how far students near the end of compulsory education have acquired some of the knowledge and skills that are essential for full participation in society. PISA assesses three key areas – reading literacy, mathematical literacy and scientific literacy – and focuses on one of these learning areas in each cycle. Students complete a two-hour test and a background questionnaire and principals complete a school questionnaire.

What is PIRLS?

The PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) is an educational is an educational research study on children’s reading literacy achievement conducted in countries and jurisdictions around the world. The first study was conducted in 35 countries during 2001. Administered every five years, the study is designed to measure trends in the reading achievement of Year 5 students as well as providing countries and jurisdictions with a snapshot of achievement at each cycle. 

As well as assessing students, PIRLS also collects background information, using questionnaires, from the students, their parents/caregivers, their reading teachers, and from the principals of the schools at which they attend.

Next PISA and PIRLS cycles

The upcoming cycles of PISA 2021 and PIRLS 2020/21 will begin early in the new school year. These studies would not be possible without the support from schools and students who contribute their time and effort, and for that the Ministry of Education is tremendously grateful.

The results from PISA 2018 are scheduled for release on the evening of 3 December 2019.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:08 am, 22 November 2019

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