The OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) measures the knowledge and skills of 15-year-old students in reading, mathematics and science. Since 2000, PISA surveys have been carried out every three years. In most countries, students participating in these surveys are approaching the end of compulsory education. Each PISA survey has a particular focus on one subject area – reading was the main focus in 2000 and 2009.
The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) has been developed by the IEA International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. Dating back to 2001, PIRLS is carried out every five years, and measures the reading achievement of pupils in fourth grade. Most pupils are approximately 10 years old, although the average age varies between countries because of differences in the education systems.
Although both PISA and PIRLS tackle reading achievement, they have a different focus. PIRLS targets children of primary school age and assesses the reading skills needed to make the transition to 'reading to learn'. PISA, on the other hand, aims to assess students' acquisition of the knowledge and skills needed in adult life. It is concerned with students' literacy skills as they make the transition from school to working life or to post-compulsory education, and examines reading literacy as an indicator of preparedness for civic life and employment.
Another important difference between PISA and PIRLS concerns their sampling. PISA uses an age-based sample, including only 15-year-olds, while PIRLS uses a grade-based sample, focusing only on fourth graders. This different focus can have important consequences for the way results should be interpreted. In PISA, although all students are 15 years old, the number of completed school years across countries may differ, due to differences in education systems and/or grade-retention practices. In PIRLS, all students are in the fourth grade, but their age can differ significantly across countries, due once again to differences in education systems. The focus on grade may hide important age differences between pupils which could explain differences in reading proficiency. Also, a focus on grade may reflect curriculum differences between countries.
The Programme for the International Assesment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), conducted by a consortium on behalf of the OECD, directly assesses literacy, numeracy and problem solving "in technology-rich environments" (i.e. ICT) skills of the participating countries' adult population aged from 16-65 years old. It aims to explore skills (mis-)match in the workplace, skills supply and demand at country level, the impact of skills on social and economic outcomes, and to measure the effect of education and training systems on competencies and the change of skills levels in the course of life. Data are currently being collected and the results will be published in October 2013, followed by a series of thematic reports in 2014 to 2016. One of the issues to be analysed will be the population with low levels of literacy. Results will be comparable to PISA and preceding adult skills surveys, namely IALS and ALL.
The European Commission has recognised, from the very start, the analytical potential of such a survey, expecting it to provide new evidence on the structure of and the interplay between skills (literacy, numeracy and ICT) supply, skills formation, education systems and the labour market. This information is expected to become one of the major sources for monitoring education and skills policies in a wider sense. With the adoption of the Europe 2020 strategy for smart, green and inclusive growth and jobs in 2010, and the Education and Training 2020 strategy with its derived initiatives i.e. on boosting literacy, the expected benefit of PIAAC has become even more important.