By Abner Oakes and Kristen Loschert

PISA provides important country-level information about how a nation’s fifteen-year-olds perform relative to their peers worldwide; however, its sample size is too small to create actionable data for superintendents, principals, and teachers to develop strategies for improving student learning outcomes. To leverage PISA in their classrooms, schools can turn to the OECD’s Test for Schools, a school-level PISA-based assessment. A new case study, The OECD Test for Schools: How Three School Systems Are Improving Student Achievement, developed by the Alliance and the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy (the Institute), profiles two school districts and one school that use the Test for Schools to monitor student academic outcomes and inform teaching practice to meet student learning needs.

In addition to the student and school leader surveys, the academic portion of the OECD Test for Schools reflects PISA’s question design and therefore differs from most standardized assessments. Related questions are clustered into units that revolve around a theme. For example, the science questions for the 2015 PISA included a scenario called “Running in Hot Water,” in which students gather information about dehydration, populate an interactive chart with air humidity and body temperature data, and make conclusions about health risks when running on a hot day without water.


Questions on the OECD Test for Schools are no different. “The PISA approach invites constructed responses and deeper thinking in every subject area,” said John Campbell, who facilitates the OECD Test for Schools in Gwinnett County Public Schools (GCPS) in Georgia, in the case study from the Alliance and the Institute.

Randy Willis, superintendent of Texas’ Granger Independent School District (ISD), also featured in the case study, agreed. “When you look at the test questions, the questions aren’t really trying to answer a standard, they test the students’ knowledge to apply to a novel situation,” Willis said in a webinar about the case study. “[Students] really have to be able to think through a question and be able to come up with how well they understand it.”


Dr. Clem Ukaoma, upper school principal at University Academy in Kansas City, Missouri, also featured in the case study, expressed similar sentiments. “The beauty of the OECD Test [for Schools] is that it models for teachers what questions written to elicit higher-order thinking should look like,” Ukaoma told the Alliance. “We want to teach our students to think critically and solve complex problems, rather than give them easy cram-and-recall questions that are often popular with textbook publishers and with some teachers.”

University Academy, a K–12 charter school, has used the OECD Test for Schools for three years. The test gives school leaders “an important measure of what our fifteen-year-olds know and are able to do academically,” said Ukaoma. “We then use the rather extensive analysis that comes back to us to engage teachers around what needs to happen to get students where they need to be.”

As the school and district leaders from University Academy, Granger ISD, and GCPS confirm, schools and districts use the OECD Test for Schools to better understand their students’ readiness for the real world. It’s no great leap then to see the effective use of the OECD Test for Schools as a way to strengthen education and society, one person at a time.

Abner Oakes is director of outreach and strategic partnerships for policy to practice at the Alliance. Kristen Loschert is editorial director at the Alliance.