This is a case study for Principle V3: Clarity and Insight

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an influential international OECD study. Conducted every three years since 2000, it measures 15-year-olds’ knowledge and skills in reading, science and mathematics and their ability to meet real life challenges. All four UK nations participated in PISA 2018.

PISA scores are of high political interest in Scotland as they allow comparisons of educational progress to be made internationally, as well as measuring progress over time It is also important data which helps to determine whether Scotland is on track to achieve its widely publicised aim of closing the poverty related attainment gap. Given a wide and varied audience and lots of political interest in these data, it is important that Scottish Government statisticians ensured the clear communication of the statistics key messages to support the accurate interpretation of the data.

New PISA outputs for Scotland

Scottish Government statisticians produced a performance report comparing Scotland’s performance against the OECD average in reading, science and maths. The main messages clearly showed Scotland’s performance in 2018 compared to previous years, and against the performance of other UK administrations. The report encouraged user feedback, including on the helpfulness of the information and the ability to contact the lead statistician. This promoted visibility of the statisticians and the continuous improvement in the quality and presentation of the statistics.

To reach a wider audience, Scottish Government also developed a new PISA dashboard which allows users to compare Scotland’s mean scores overall against other countries. This includes results broken down by student characteristics such as gender and immigration background of students and parents.

Developments to enhance clarity and insight

To support the development of reporting of PISA data, the Scottish Government consulted with a Research Advisory Group, comprised of representatives from across the education sector, and with researchers through the Academic Reference Group for the Research Strategy for Scottish Education. Collaborating with these experts helped them maximise the use of the data and to engage in outreach activities, including stressing the importance of the study and its objective within schools, to improve quality of the data collected. Some of this work identified the consideration of local level initiatives that could add further insight, for example, the linkage of the PISA data to National 4 and 5 exam results in Scotland.

The team also held a briefing session with UK journalists allowing for interactive exchange between the users and the statisticians and creating positive relationships. The team explained the appropriate interpretation of the statistics in order to help minimise the statistics being misused publicly. This led to the clarification of important topics such as the use of statistical significance in making comparisons between countries, the measure of social background used in PISA, and Scotland’s status as an ‘adjudicated region’ and what this entails. These were reflected in the media reporting of results.

Following publication, the team undertook a peer evaluation of the report against the Code of Practice for Statistics. This identified the need to clearly explain in plain English, technical terms that would be unfamiliar to a non-technical audience and some of the country specific detail. This has resulted in further clarity in the definitions used and in the explanations of the differences between Scotland and the other three nation’s statistics. In reporting PISA 2022 data, the Scottish Government plan to undertake engagement with users of the data to further improve clarity of the results, including more detail on the sample of schools and pupils achieved in the study.

This example demonstrates the proactive approach taken by Scottish Government statisticians to maximise the value and insight offered by the 2018 PISA statistics, and to support their accurate interpretation. This included engaging directly with a variety of experts, peers, the media and other user groups, making themselves visible and approachable throughout, developing new and accessible products, and explaining the statistics publicly to support their appropriate use.