For policy-makers in many OECD countries, international comparisons of student achievement have become an essential tool for assessing the performance of their countries' education systems and the adequacy of their students' preparation for participation in an increasingly global world. Such comparisons offer an external point of reference for the objective evaluation of education systems' effectiveness.
In response to growing demand for international comparisons of educational outcomes, the OECD has launched the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA represents a new commitment by the governments of OECD countries to monitor the outcomes of education systems in terms of student achievement on a regular basis and within a common framework that is internationally accepted. PISA aims at providing a new basis for policy dialogue and for collaboration in defining and operationalising educational goals in innovative ways that reflect judgements about the skills that are relevant to adult life. It provides inputs for standard-setting and evaluation; insights into the factors which contribute to the development of competencies, and into similarities and differences between countries relating to the way in which these factors operate. It also provides a better understanding of the causes and consequences of observed skill gaps. By supporting a shift in focus from the inputs into education systems and institutions to the outcomes of learning, PISA seeks to assist policy-makers to bring about improvements in schooling and in the preparation of young people for adult life at a time of rapid change and increasing global interdependence.
While the first results from PISA will become available only in December 2001, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement's (IEA) Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) already provides a basis for comparisons of the mathematics and science achievement of students around the age of 13 years. Comparisons of achievement in mathematics and science are of particular relevance since mathematical and scientific knowledge and skills provide a foundation on which students may acquire the additional technical and scientific skills that are considered crucial to their full understanding of important social issues of the modern age, to their future success in a technological world, and to countries' future economic competitiveness. Since TIMSS was recently repeated (TIMSS-R), Education at a Glance will, for the first time, present information on trends in student achievement in mathematics and science.
Results from the International Adult Literacy Survey, which was conducted by Statistics Canada and the OECD between 1994 and 1998, can be used to examine interrelationships between the distribution of skills in the adult population and important social and economic variables. Respondents in this survey were asked to carry out various tasks that might be encountered in everyday life. Three scales of literacy were devised and tested: "prose literacy"(the knowledge and skills required to understand and use information from texts, such as editorials, news stories, brochures and instruction manuals); "document literacy" (the knowledge and skills required to locate and use information contained in various formats such as job applications, payroll forms, transportation timetables, maps, tables and graphics); and "quantitative literacy" (the knowledge and skills required to apply arithmetical operations to numbers embedded in printed materials, such as balancing a cheque-book, calculating a tip, completing an order form or determining the amount of interest on a loan from an advertisement).
Indicator F1 compares the mathematics and science achievement of 8th-grade students in 1999 (in TIMSS-R) with that of 8th-grade students in 1995 (in TIMSS). This indicator examines the differences in achievement scores between the two points in time, as well as the differences in countries' standings relative to the average of participating OECD countries.
Indicator F2 examines the change in the variation in students' achievement scores between 1995 and 1999. Comparisons between the range of achievement within countries (Indicator F2) and changes in their average performance (Indicator F1) show, at least in some countries, that improvement in overall performance can be attained without an increase in internal differences.
Indicator F3 takes Indicator F2 further by comparing the distribution of literacy skills in the adult population with the distribution of individual income. This is one way of looking at the consequences of low levels of knowledge and skills over the course of the lifecycle.
Finally, Indicator F4 explores gender differences in the mathematics and science achievement of 8th-grade students in 1999, also reflecting briefly on trends in gender differences in achievement since 1995.