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Education Lab Blog

Education Lab is a yearlong project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

April 1, 2014 at 5:00 AM

Who aces problem-solving exam? U.S. above average, but Asia rules

When it comes to success in life, it’s not just what students know, but what they can do with what they know.

To gauge that ability, a problem-solving section was part of the 2012 international tests known as PISA, or Programme for International Student Assessment.

The section, given to about 85,000 15-year-olds worldwide, “goes well beyond whether students can reproduce what they were taught,” said Pablo Zoido of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which manages the PISA exams.

To do well, the OECD says, students must be “open to novelty, tolerate doubt and uncertainty, and dare to use intuition to initiate a solution.”

And that’s where U.S. students shine, at least in part.

The story isn’t quite what some might expect. This isn’t the Asian-countries-focus-too-much-on-rote-learning narrative. Overall, students in Asian countries led the pack on the problem-solving test — just as they do on the PISA math exams. Singapore and Korea were at the top, followed by Japan.

But U.S. students scored higher than the PISA average in problem-solving, which was much better than their below-average performance on the PISA math exam.

They were also among the top in what OECD calls interactive problems – ones that require students to uncover needed information rather than solve a problem for which they are given all the necessary facts from the outset.

On interactive problems, the U.S. ranked fourth.

But more Asian students did better overall, in part because they were stronger at what OECD calls knowledge acquisition – or using the information they have (or find) to move from a concrete situation to an abstract understanding of it.

To find some sample problems, go here.

Other highlights:

  • The average scores of U.S. girls were about the same as U.S. boys, although more boys scored at the highest levels.
  • About 11.6 percent of U.S. students scored at the top two levels, a little above the average.

Comments | More in News | Topics: Asia, PISA, problem solving

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