More than 20 years on from its first cycle, PISA has become an established and influential force for education reform. The transformational idea behind PISA lay in testing the skills of students directly through an international metric; linking that with data from students, teachers, schools and systems to understand performance differences; and harnessing the power of international collaboration to act on the data.

From its inception, PISA differed from traditional assessments. To do well in PISA, students had to be able to extrapolate from what they know, think across the boundaries of subject-matter disciplines and apply their knowledge creatively in novel situations – rather than mainly reproduce knowledge they had learned in class. The modern world no longer rewards us for what we know, but for what we can do with what we know. As content becomes increasingly accessible, and more routine cognitive tasks become digitised and outsourced, the focus must shift to enabling people to become lifelong learners. Epistemic knowledge – thinking like a scientist or mathematician – and ways of working are taking precedence over knowing specific formulae, names or places.

This vision of education is reflected in many contemporary frameworks calling for the development of so-called 21st century skills – including the OECD’s Learning Compass 2030. Yet without substantial changes in our education systems, the gap between what they provide our young people with and what our societies demand is likely to widen further.

One integral component of education systems is assessment. The way students are tested has a big influence on the future of education because it signals the priorities for the curriculum and instruction. Tests will always focus our thinking about what is important, and so they should – teachers and school administrators, as well as students, will pay attention to what is tested and adapt accordingly. A fundamental question is how we can get assessment right and ensure that it helps teachers and policy makers track progress in education in ways that matter.

The trouble is that many assessment systems are poorly aligned with the curriculum and with the knowledge and skills that young people need to thrive. When designing assessments, we often trade gains in validity and relevancy for gains in efficiency and reliability. But these priorities have a price: the most reliable and efficient test is one where students respond in ways that allow for little ambiguity – typically a multiple-choice format. A relevant test is one where we test for a wide range of knowledge and skills considered important for success in life and work.

To do this well requires multiple response formats, including open formats, which elicit more complex responses. Necessarily, these require more sophisticated marking processes. Good tests should also provide a window into students’ thinking and understanding, revealing the strategies a student uses to solve a problem and providing productive feedback, at appropriate levels of detail, to fuel improvement decisions. Digital assessments, by logging traces of students’ actions and not just their responses, provide several opportunities to advance assessment along these lines.

Beyond that, assessments need to be fair and ensure adequate measurement at different levels of detail so they can serve decision-making needs at different levels of the education system. We also need to work harder to bridge the gap between summative and formative assessments. The origins of education were in apprenticeship, where students learned from and with people, with immediate and personal feedback on their progress. Centuries later, the industrialisation of education then divorced learning from assessment, asking students to pile up years of learning and then calling them back much later to reproduce what they learned in often narrow and time-constrained settings. This has contributed to learning and teaching that is often shallow and focused on what can be easily measured. Digitalisation now provides us with the opportunity to re-integrate learning and assessment, to combine summative and formative elements of assessment, and to create coherent multi-layered assessment systems that extend from students to classrooms to schools to regional, national, and even international levels. Better integrating assessment and learning will mean that teachers no longer see testing as taking away valuable time from learning, but rather an instrument that adds to it.

Of course, all of this also applies to PISA. PISA is viewed as an important measure of the success of school systems around the world and, as such, needs to lead education reform. Since 2012, and thanks to the introduction of computer-based delivery, PISA has expanded its range of metrics to include a new interdisciplinary domain in every cycle – including problem solving (2012), collaborative problem solving (2015), global competence (2018) and, most recently, creative thinking (2022).

In 2020, PISA went a step further: despite the most challenging of global circumstances, countries decided to invest more resources in developing innovative assessments, establishing a new Research, Development and Innovation (RDI) programme led by a group of international senior experts in assessment.

In some ways, this publication was borne out of our collaboration with different experts over the last three years since our ongoing research programme began. It makes the case for why we need to innovate assessments, explains what we need to change and how we can leverage technology in order to get there. It also makes clear that this change will not happen overnight: there is much work yet to be done, and it will require the convergence of political, financial and intellectual capitals to bring these ideas to scale.

PISA can become an engine to drive this change forward by harnessing the power of international collaboration between educators, researchers and policymakers, and sharing the costs – both financial and political – among countries in the search for innovative practices. Research and innovation in large-scale assessment has always been a core part of PISA’s DNA and we are committed to continue as a global leader on the path ahead.


Andreas Schleicher

Director for Education and Skills

Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD Secretary-General

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