PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) is an international survey conducted on the OECD’s (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) initiative which aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students. Students from randomly selected schools take tests in functional reading, mathematics and science.

PISA tests are held once every three years. Each year of assessment focuses on one of these subjects, with the other two assessed but to a lesser extent. There have been five PISA surveys:

  • PISA 2000 – reading
  • PISA 2003 – mathematics
  • PISA 2006 – natural sciences (Estonia participated)
  • PISA 2009 – reading (Estonia participated)
  • PISA 2012 – mathematics (Estonia participated)

A regularly conducted survey provides an opportunity to identify education trends worldwide.

Estonia has been participating in PISA surveys since 2006. Taking part in international surveys provides us with information about the functioning and results of our educational system compared to other countries. Regular participation helps us identify trends in educational outcomes as well as in background systems, which in turn allows us to propose necessary changes and improvement actions.

In most countries compulsory education ends after the child has turned 15 and the student proceeds to make personal choices regarding his/her path for further education. The sample of the survey includes students aged between15 years and 3 months to 16 years and 2 months.

The following is surveyed in PISA:

  • How well-prepared young people are to face the challenges ahead
  • Are the students capable of analysing, finding causes and presenting their own ideas
  • How capable students are in applying their skills and knowledge in real life situations

The main goal of PISA tests is to assess students’ competences which enable them to be actively engaged in life after leaving school. PISA measures students’ capacity to apply their skills and knowledge in real-life personal, social and global contexts. The term “literacy” is used to emphasise the students’ application of their knowledge in everyday life. For example, the functional reading test assesses students’ ability to obtain and assess information, read diagrams, find associations in a text, interpret, draw conclusions, etc.

Students fill in test booklets containing questions about the main subject of assessment and other two subjects. These skills are assessed by using problem-solving tasks, which usually contain a text, diagram, table or graph, with the questions constructed so tasks that students have to undertake are as close as possible to those they might come across in the real world. The students have two hours to complete the test.

After completing the test, students fill in a questionnaire about their attitudes towards the subject, e.g. science or reading, and their background. Heads of school also complete a short questionnaire about the number of employees, attitudes of teachers, independence of the school and its teachers, resources, practices, policies, etc.

The sample is designed to be representative of the total student population – the proportion of boys and girls, urban and rural schools, schools with different languages of instruction, etc. Countries are given concrete guidelines about which schools and students can be excluded from the sample. The proportion of students that the sample must cover is also determined.

In order to ensure the accuracy of an international survey, it is very important that every participating country strictly adheres to sampling requirements. The participation rate must be at least 80% of the students and 85% of the schools selected into the sample. Rules allowed countries to exclude up to 5% of the target population. It is very important that countries follow the procedural rules; only this ensures the comparability of the results.

The numbers of schools and students participating in the PISA test

In 2006, more than 400,000 students from 57 countries participated in the survey. Estonia’s sample included 4,865 students from 169 schools.

In 2009, 65 countries and economic regions took part and the number of participating students was about 470,000. Estonia’s sample: 4,727 students from 175 schools (2,297 girls and 2,430 boys; 3,841 from Estonian-medium schools and 886 from Russian-medium schools). 138 schools included in the sample were Estonian-medium schools, 31 Russian-medium schools and 6 were schools with several languages of instruction.

In 2012, about 510,000 students from 65 countries and economic regions participated in the test. Estonia’s sample: the total sample included 5,867 students from 206 schools t, of which 1,088 students only took the financial literacy test. The main part of the test was taken by 4,779 students: 2,409 girls and 2,370 boys, of them 3,784 Estonian-medium schools 995 from Russian-medium schools. 166 schools were Estonian-medium schools, 37 Russian-medium schools and 3 with two different languages of instruction.

Students on a simplified study programme do not take part in the test.

Comparison of the results of the PISA tests in Estonia


The graph shows the changes in all literacies in Estonian students average PISA test results of 2006, 2009 and 2012. According to the test results the knowledge and skills of Estonian students have improved significantly.

PISA 2012

The survey’s main domain of assessment was mathematics. All students filled in a background questionnaire which included questions about their socioeconomic background, attitudes towards mathematics, satisfaction with their school and other aspects.

510,000 students from 65 countries participated in the survey. In Estonia, 5,867 students took part. The total number of 15-year-old students was 12,439, which is almost half of all students of this age.

206 Estonian schools participated in the survey, of which 166 were Estonian-medium schools, 37 Russian-medium schools and 3 had two languages as the languages of instruction. 79% of students (1,917 girls and 1,867 boys) completed the test in Estonian and the remaining 21% in Russian (492 girls and 503 boys).

  • The skills and of Estonia’s basic school students rank among the best in the world and at the absolute top in Europe. The results have improved since PISA 2006 and 2009. For example, in science, Estonian s students share the first and second place with their Finnish peers.
  • The performance of students from Estonia’s Russian-medium schools has taken an unprecedented and in the world context a remarkable leap forward in six years. The skills of students from both Estonian and Russian medium schools have improved. Although the skills of Russian youths are, on average, still lower than those of the Estonians, the gap is narrowing rapidly. The results of Russian-medium schools have improved twice as fast as the results of Estonian-medium schools.
  • Estonian basic schools have done a very good job. Low-performing students have been given the necessary support to catch up. Estonia has the smallest share of low achieving 15-year olds in Europe and is also among the best among all participating countries.
  • Estonia has very little educational stratification compared with other countries – our educational system is homogenous and egalitarian.


Last updated: 12 December 2014