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U.S. students strong at problem-solving, but trail other nations

By Motoko Rich

Fifteen-year-olds in the United States scored above the average of those in the developed world on exams assessing problem-solving skills, but they trailed several countries in Asia and Europe as well as Canada, according to international standardized tests results being released on Tuesday.

The American students who took the problem-solving tests in 2012, the first time they were administered, did better on these exams than on reading, math and science tests, suggesting that students in the United States are better able to apply knowledge to real-life situations than perform straightforward academic tasks.

Still, students who took the problem-solving tests in countries including Singapore, South Korea, Japan, several provinces of China, Canada, Australia, Finland and Britain all outperformed American students.

“The good news is that problem-solving still remains a relatively strong suit for American students,” said Bob Wise, former governor of West Virginia and president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a national policy and advocacy group focused on improving high schools.

“The challenge is that a lot of other nations are now developing this and even moving ahead. So where we used to, in an earlier era, dominate in what we called the deeper learning skills — creative thinking, critical thinking and the ability to solve problems — in terms of producing the workers that are increasingly needed in this area, other nations are coming on strong and in some cases surpassing us.”

The new problem-solving exams were administered to a subset of 15-year-olds in 28 countries who sat for the Program for International Student Assessment, a set of tests every three years commonly known as PISA and given by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based group whose members include the world’s wealthiest nations. Almost 1,275 American students took the exams.

The types of tasks that appeared on the problem-solving tests asked students to demonstrate practical thinking. At a basic level, for example, students might be asked to identify the cheapest lines of furniture in a catalog showing different brands. At a more advanced level, students could be asked to develop a process for figuring out why a particular electronic device was not working properly.

American students were best at what the test writers described as “interactive” tasks, in which they were asked to discover some of the information needed to solve the problem.

“This suggests that students in the United States are open to novelty, tolerate doubt and uncertainty, and dare to use intuition to initiate a solution,” the OECD said in a statement.

Critics of the rankings on international tests have tended to characterize the high performance of Asian countries in particular as demonstrating the rote learning of facts and formulas.

But the problem-solving results showed that students in the highest-performing nations also were able to think flexibly. Even on interactive tasks, the American students’ strength, all the Asian countries that participated in this round of exams outperformed the United States.

“To understand how to navigate a complex problem and exercise abstract reasoning is actually a very strong point for the Asian countries,” said Francesco Avvisati, an analyst on the PISA team at the OECD.

New York Times News Service

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