Mike Kueber's Blog

April 2, 2014

More on PISA

Filed under: Education — Mike Kueber @ 10:26 pm
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A few weeks ago, I blogged about a book by Amanda Ripley titled The Smartest Kids in the World. In the book, Ripley described her study of why the kids in certain countries – Poland, South Korea, and Finland – appeared to be much better educated than American kids.

Ripley selected these countries based on their PISA scores.  PISA (Program for International Students Assessment) is a test of critical-thinking skills (not curriculum-centered knowledge) that translates fairly from one country to the next. The PISA results, as do many other test results, show American students to be mediocre in science and math and fairly strong in reading. But the PISA rankings are dominated by Finland, South Korea, and fast rising Poland.

A few days later, I blogged more specifically about the PISA and concluded by warning that, while the test was promising, the prospects for American achievement were not:

  • This 61-question test is so fascinating because it is directed toward the ability to use your education in a practical manner, your ability to engage effectively in the modern world. When people can use their critical thinking, our need for a nanny government is diminished. That is why Ripley and I are both worried for America.

Well, an article earlier this week in the NY Times suggests that maybe I was too pessimistic. According to the article, the PISA was expanded in 2012 to test not only reading, math, and science, but also problem-solving skills. And problem-solving appears to be an American forte:

  • 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.”

The article went to great lengths to congratulate America on its problem-solving success:

  • 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 students 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 O.E.C.D. said in a statement.”

But the article also noted that, although American kids seemed especially skilled at problem-solving, they were not leading the pack:

  • 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 released on Tuesday…. including Singapore, South Korea, Japan, several provinces of China, Canada, Australia, Finland and Britain all outperformed American students.”

I choose to see the glass as half full and look on this performance as something of a success that we can build on.


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