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Posted at 9:30 AM ET, 12/ 7/2010

Sample PISA questions given to 15-year-olds

By Valerie Strauss

Today we learn the latest available results from the Program for International Student Assessment, known as PISA, which is a system of international assessments that tests 15-year-olds in reading, math and science.

I wrote about whether international comparisons tell us much in an earlier post. Here are some of the sample questions on PISA, and you can find more at


This letter appeared in an Australian newspaper in 1997. Refer to the letter to answer the questions below.

Did you know that in 1996 we spent almost the same amount on chocolate as our Government spent on overseas aid to help the poor? Could there be something wrong with our priorities? What are you going to do about it? Yes, you.
Arnold Jago,

1. Arnold Jago’s aim in the letter is to provoke:
A. guilt.
B. amusement.
C. fear.
D. satisfaction.

2. What kind of response or action do you think Arnold Jago would like his letter to prompt?


Question 1
Full credit: A. Guilt.

No credit: Other responses and missing.

Question 2
Full credit:
- Government/individuals should spend more on (overseas) aid.
• People donating more money to overseas aid.
• Donate money to charities.
• People should spend less on chocolate and more on the poor.
• People spending less money on chocolate and more on the overseas sick. [Limited
sense of aid, but still gets main thrust.]
• That people don’t spend all their money on chocolate rather than overseas. [Poorly
expressed but has some sense of the interrelationship Jago refers to.]
• An increase in the spending of people and Government towards overseas aid to help the poor. He also wants people to feel guilty and buy less chocolate or to donate money to overseas aid for the poor.
• People instead of buying and eating chocolate should give to a good cause and not be so self-indulgent.
- Government/individuals should change their priorities or awareness.
• Change our priorities.
• He would like people to raise their awareness about how we spend our resources.
• People stirred up to think more of helping others than indulging in personal
pleasures. [Focuses on attitude (“think more”) rather than action.]
• People’s awareness that the poor need our help, for people to do something about it. [Emphasis on awareness.]

No credit:
- Identifies the writer’s strategy, to make the reader feel guilty.
• Feel guilty / ashamed.
- Spend less on chocolate / be less greedy.
• Not buy any more chocolate.
• Stop eating junk food.
• He would like to see us doing more with ourselves than pigging out on chocolate.
[Misses the main point of what the “something else” is; emphasis is on eating.]
- Other responses., including vague, inappropriate or irrelevant answers.
• He would like the government to be sacked.
• He would like people to say, “I will donate all my money to charity.”
• Nothing.
• I don’t agree with Arnold Jago.
• Agree with him.
• I think he wants other people to agree and to start to do something about it. [Too vague.]
• I think he would like letters with written opinions and what they should do to help this problem. [Vague unspecified support/discussion of the issue. Equivalent to “Agree with him”.]
• He may like to see people’s suggestions on how to fund raise for overseas using
chocolate or to see a general response to his letter about our priorities. [Response shows basic misunderstanding of the argument.]
- Off task and missing.
To answer this question correctly students had to reflect on and evaluate the text.


Read the following and answer the questions that follow.

Only one in three parents polled is aware of bullying involving their children, according to an Education Ministry survey released on Wednesday.

The survey, conducted between December 1994 and January 1995, involved some 19,000 parents, teachers and children at primary, junior and senior high schools where bullying has occurred.

The survey, the first of its kind conducted by the Ministry, covered students from the fourth grade up. According to the survey, 22 per cent of the primary school children polled said they face bullying, compared with 13 per cent of junior high school children and 4 per cent of senior high school students.

On the other hand, some 26 per cent of the primary school children said they have bullied, with the percentage decreasing to 20 per cent for junior high school children and 6 per cent for senior high school students.

Of those who replied that they have been bullies, between 39 and 65 per cent said they also have been bullied.

The survey indicated that 37 percent of the parents of bullied primary school children were aware of bullying targeted at their children. The figure was 34 percent for the parents of junior high school children and 18 per cent for those of the senior high school students.

Of the parents aware of the bullying, 14 percent to 18 percent said they had been told of bullying by teachers. Only 3 percent to 4 percent of the parents learned of the bullying from their children, according to the survey.

The survey also found that 42 percent of primary school teachers are not aware of bullying aimed at their students. The portion of such teachers was 29 percent at junior high schools and 69 percent at senior high schools.

Asked for the reason behind bullying, about 85 percent of the teachers cited a lack of education at home. Many parents singled out a lack of a sense of justice and compassion among children as the main reason.

An Education Ministry official said the findings suggest that parents and teachers should have closer contact with children to prevent bullying.

School bullying became a major issue in Japan after 13-year-old Kiyoteru Okouchi hanged himself in Nishio, Aichi Prefecture, in the fall of 1994, leaving a note saying that classmates had repeatedly dunked him in a nearby river and extorted money from him.

The bullying-suicide prompted the Education Ministry to issue a report on bullying in March 1995 urging teachers to order bullies not to come to school.

Source: The Japan Times Ltd., Tokyo, May 23 1996

The article above appeared in a Japanese newspaper in 1996. Refer to it to answer the questions below.

1) Why does the article mention the death of Kiyoteru Okouchi?

2) What percentage of teachers at each type of school was not aware that their students were being bullied?



Question 1
Full credit: Relates the bullying-suicide incident to public concern and / or the survey OR refers to the idea that the death was associated with extreme bullying. Connection may be explicitly stated or readily inferred.
• To explain why the survey was conducted.
• To give the background to why people are so concerned about bullying in Japan.
• He was a boy who committed suicide because of bullying.
• To show how far bullying can go.
• It was an extreme case.
• He hanged himself and he left a note saying that he was bullied in many hurtful ways. e.g. bulllies took his money and they also dunked him in a nearby stream many times. [A description of the extremity of the case.]
• This is mentioned because they feel it is important to try and stop bullying and for parents and teachers to keep a close eye on the children because they might do the same thing if it goes on for too long without help. [A very long winded way of saying that the incident showed how much public awareness needed to be raised.]

No credit: Vague or inaccurate answer, including suggestion that the mention of Kiyoteru Okouchi is sensationalist.
* He was a Japanese school boy.
* There are many cases like this all over the world.
* It’s just to grab your attention.

Question 2
Full credit: Circles A (letter A or graph).

No credit: Other responses and missing.



1. Which of the figures has the largest area? Explain your reasoning.

2. Describe a method for estimating the area of figure C.


Question 1
Full credit: Shape B, supported with plausible reasoning.
• It’s the largest area because the others will fit inside it.
• B. It doesn’t have indents in it which decreases the area. A and C have gaps.
• B, because it’s a full circle, and the others are like circles with bits taken out.
• B, because it has no open areas:

No credit: Shape B, without plausible support.
• B. because it has the largest surface area
• The circle. It’s pretty obvious.
• B, because it is bigger.
Other responses and missing.
To answer the question correctly students

Question 2
Full Credit: Reasonable method
* Draw a grid of squares over the shape and count the squares that are more than half filled by the shape.
* Cut the arms off the shape and rearrange the pieces so that they fill a square then measure the side of the square.
* Build a 3D model based on the shape and fill it with water. Measure the amount of water used and the depth of the water in the model. Derive the area from the information.

Partial Credit
* The student suggests to find the area of the circle and subtract the area of the cut out pieces. However, the student does not mention about how to find out the area of the cut out pieces.
* Add up the area of each individual arm of the shape

No Credit
Other answers or missing



If a vehicle is traveling at 110 kph, what is the distance traveled while the brakes are being applied?


Full Credit: 78.1 meters (units not required)

No Credit: Anything else


Read the following information and answer the questions below.

A farmer was working with dairy cattle at an agricultural experiment station. The population of flies in the barn where the cattle lived was so large that the animals’ health was affected. So the farmer sprayed the barn and the cattle with a solution of insecticide A. The insecticide killed nearly all the flies. Some time later, however, the number of flies was again large. The farmer again sprayed with the insecticide. The result was similar to that of the first spraying. Most, but not all, of the flies were killed. Again, within a short time the population of flies increased, and they were again sprayed with the insecticide. This sequence of events was repeated five times: then it became apparent that insecticide A was becoming less and less effective in killing the flies. The farmer noted that one large batch of the insecticide solution had been made and used in all the sprayings. Therefore he suggested the possibility that the insecticide solution decomposed with age.
Source: Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science, National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 1998, p. 75.

The farmer’s suggestion is that the insecticide decomposed with age. Briefly explain how this suggestion could be tested.

Full credit: Responses in which three variables (type of flies, age of insecticide, and exposure) are controlled, such as:
• Compare the results from a new batch of the insecticide with results from the old batch on two groups of flies of the same species that have not been previously exposed to the insecticide.
• Some flies could be taken. If they would both be put in a separate box you could use a new spray and an older spray and see what the results are. [Note: Although the same species is not mentioned, it is implied that the flies are the same type, and that the flies have not been previously exposed.]
• Make one big batch of spray. Have 2 groups of flies and spray each group every six
months. Spray groups one with the big batch, and group 2 a new batch each time.
[Note: Although the same species is not mentioned, it is implied that the flies are the
same type, and that the flies have not been previously exposed.]

Partial credit:
- Responses in which two of the three variables (type of flies, age of insecticide, and
exposure) are controlled, such as:
• Compare the results from a new batch of the insecticide with the results from the old batch on the flies in the barn.
• Try a new bottle of it, then wait till it gets a bit older and the flies come back and then
try again. [Note: Reproduction of what the farmer experienced, controlling the age of
the insecticide and type of flies (“the flies” is interpreted to mean the same flies).]
- Responses in which one variable only of three variables (type of flies, age of insecticide, and exposure) is controlled, such as:
• (Chemically) analyse samples of the insecticide at regular intervals to see if it changes over time.
• Take batches of the insecticide to a laboratory every few months and have its strength tested.
• Spray the flies with a new batch of insecticide, but without mentioning comparison with old batch.
• Do the same thing but buy new insecticide each time, hence proving if his theory is right or wrong.
• (Chemically) analyse samples of the insecticide but without mentioning comparison of analyses over time.
• Maybe if he sent a fresh batch of the poison to the lab with a batch of the old stuff and get them retested the results may prove his theory.

No credit: Other responses and missing.
• He could test it every year to see if it is not old and would still work. [Note: Does
not indicate how the insecticide would be tested.]


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By Valerie Strauss  | December 7, 2010; 9:30 AM ET
Categories:  Standardized Tests  | Tags:  international comparisons, pisa, pisa questions, pisa results, sample questions  
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