STEM Beats - April 2014

U.S. Students Score Above-Average in Assessment of Problem Solving Skills

April 1, 2014

It's no shock that U.S. students have fallen behind other developed nations in international assessments of reading, math, and science (we issued a Science S.O.S. earlier this year on the topic), but there is surprising news out today regarding an area in which they show strength. 

Released by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), PISA 2012 Results: Creative Problem Solving: Students' Skills in Tackling Real-Life Problems reports that students in the U.S. exhibit above-average proficiency in problem solving and creative and critical thinking.  The PISA assessment, administered every three years by OECD, examines how 15-year-olds in participating nations around the world compare in skill areas, both academic and practical.  In this report, OECD focuses specifically on those real-world skills for the first time and attempts to measure their impact on economy and workforce demand.

In the assessment, students are presented with practical tasks - anything from identifying the best route between two cities to figuring out why an electronic device isn't working - and must utilize their creative  and problem solving skills to complete them.  Despite better-than-average results, the U.S. still ranked well below all participating countries in Asia and many major players in Europe.  But a closer look reveals that American students excelled most in interactive tasks requiring them to gather additional information which, according to OECD, implies that they are "open to novelty, tolerate doubt and uncertainty, and dare to use intuition to initiate a solution."  (If those qualities don't describe a scientist, engineer, programmer, or any STEM professional for that matter, we don't know what does!)

So what do these findings mean in terms of the global economy?  OECD's Andreas Schleicher put it best in his presentation on today's release: "The world economy no longer pays you for what you know - Google knows everything.  The world economy pays you for what you can do with what you know."  Employers looking for talent to fill the jobs of today (and tomorrow) are demanding this type of practical knowledge and problem solving acumen, the foundations for which are laid in K-12 classrooms across the country every day. 

STEM-literate U.S. students graduate from high school with critical thinking skills, most notably in the STEM disciplines.  These skills have real-life applications in the workforce (STEM-related or not) and strength in these areas is increasingly regarded as the baseline for success in any position.  They also represent the essential components for innovation and invention, two domains in which Americans generally believe themselves to lead the pack.  However, other nations, even those whose rote learning techniques have branded their students as simply “book smart,” bested the U.S. in this practical skill assessment. 

But we don't have to lose our edge.

One solution to this slippage lies in Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards.  These standards are set forth with critical thinking in mind, and offer the opportunity for students to get these skills throughout their education.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again here:  If we are to make gains in international comparisons, we’ve got to stay the course on Common Core and adopt Next Gen.  It may not be the only solution, but it’s one that we are poised to make good on. We can’t afford not to.

Tags: math, science, jobs & workforce, Common Core, Next Generation Science