U.S. Students Score Above Average on First PISA Problem-Solving Exam

By Holly Kurtz — April 01, 2014 5 min read
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U.S. 15-year-olds scored above average on a first-of-its-kind international assessment that measured creative problem-solving skills.

However, their mean scores were significantly lower than those earned in ten of the 44 countries and economies that took the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2012 problem-solving assessment.

The assessment, which was the subject of an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report released Tuesday, defined creative problem-solving as the ability to “understand and resolve problem situations where a method of solution is not immediately obvious.” Worldwide, a representative sample of 85,000 students took the exam, including 1,273 U.S. students in 162 schools.

The OECD introduced the exam based on the belief that today’s high school students will enter an economy in which on-the-job problem solving has gotten progressively more complex because computers have replaced many of the human employees whose jobs once consisted of completing simple tasks.

“In modern societies, all of life is problem solving,” states the report PISA 2012 Results: Creative Problem-Solving: Students’ Skills in Tackling Real-life Problems,”the fifth of six OECD reports on the 2012 assessment, which also tested math, reading, and science and collected information on students’ communities, lives, and schools. “Complex problem-solving skills are particularly in demand in fast-growing, highly skilled managerial, professional, and technical occupations.”

With an average score of 508 points, U.S. students exceeded the 500-point average on the exam, in which countries’ mean scores ranged from 399 (Columbia) to 562 (Singapore). This meant they performed on par with England, Estonia, France, Netherlands, Italy,the Czech Republic, Germany, Belgium, Austria, Norway, and Ireland.

Singapore, Korea, and Japan earned the highest scores. Heinz-Dieter Meyer, an associate professor of governance, education, and policy at the State University of New York at Albany, said this raised questions for him because these nations were not necessarily known for creativity.

“Educators may be surprised to see that the results of the new study again list ‘the usual suspects,’ Singapore, Korea, and Japan, ahead of everyone else, even though we know from a wealth of sociological and anthropological studies that the culture in these countries rewards conformity above all,” he said.

Other countries that earned significantly higher scores than the United States were Macao, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Chinese Taipei, Canada, Australia, and Finland.

Source: PISA 2012 Results: Creative Problem Solving Students’ skills in tackling real-life problems

U.S. performance was especially strong on tasks designed to measure interactive problem solving, which requires students to find some of the information they need on their own. For example, one interactive task on the computerized exam required students to explore the buttons of an MP3 player on their screen in order to correctly respond to questions about how to use the device. By contrast, a “static task” provides all the information upfront. In one static task that appeared on the exam, students were given a list of rules regarding the seating preferences of guests invited to a birthday party and then asked to sit them around a table, according to these rules.

The ability to excel in interactive problem solving suggests that “students in the United States are open to novelty, tolerate doubt and uncertainty, and dare to use intuition to initiate a solution,” according to a report released with the results.

“We believe probably that has to do with the way mathematics or reading or science is taught in the United States, especially when you compare that with how it is taught in other countries,” said Pablo Zoido, an analyst with the OECD PISA office in Paris. “We think problem solving or teaching through problem solving is more developed in the United States than they are in other countries.”

U.S. students also performed relatively better on problem solving than on mathematics, meaning that their problem-solving skills exceeded those of students in nations with similar performance in math. Even though they scored above average on problem solving, U.S.studentsscored slightly below average in mathematics in 2012.

However, U.S. students lagged behind those in the highest-performing nations when it came to tasks that required them to “select, organize, and integrate the information and feedback received in order to represent and formulate their understanding of the problem,” according to the OECD report.

In addition to presenting results for all students who took the test, the PISA report also broke out average scores for subgroups. In the United States, girls equaled boys even though, internationally, boys outscored girls by seven points. However, as in other nations, more U.S. boys than girls earned extremely high scores on the exam.

Students with immigrant backgrounds scored significantly lower than non-immigrants in the United States, as they did in most of the other nations that participated in the exam. Finally, as in the rest of the world, the relationship between socioeconomic status and assessment results was weaker in problem solving than in mathematics.

Michael J. Feuer, the dean of the graduate school of education and human development and a professor of education at George Washington University, suspected that these latest PISA results could play a prominent role in discussions of how schools prepare students for the world of work.

“I anticipate that the results will reopen a longstanding and important debate about the general versus specific nature of ‘problem-solving skills,’ and about where (school, work, family) and when (at age 15, during the pre-K years, throughout the lifespan) those skills can and should be formed, especially in an era when skill demands are changing because of technology and other global economic realities,” he said.

However, Feuer was also concerned that too much might be made of the results of a single test of a single age group.

“Although performance on this test, which is based on simulated problem situations, is perhaps mildly indicative of a more general and long-lasting set of relevant competencies, it would be a mistake to infer that knowledge and skills assessed at age 15 are somehow fixed or predictive of future performance or of ‘success in life,’” he said. “There is abundant research showing that much learning takes place ‘on the job’ or experientially, and that performance on even high-quality simulation tasks on standardized assessments are weak predictors.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.