American 15-Year-Olds Are Pretty Good at Solving Problems

American 15-year-olds did better on an international problem-solving test than expected given their performance in math, reading, and science, according to a Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) report issued April 1 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The U.S. ranked 18th out of 44 countries and regions on the online problem-solving test, which used a game-like interface to test students’ ability to use an MP3 player they had never seen before; set a thermostat; buy a train ticket; plan a route through traffic; and test a robotic vacuum cleaner. The tests’ goals were for students to “systematically explore a complex problem scenario, devise multi-step solutions that take into account all constraints, and adjust their plans in light of the feedback received.”

Asian countries dominated the problem-solving test, with Singapore ranking first, followed by South Korea; Japan; Macao, China; Hong Kong, China; Shanghai, China; and Taiwan (which the OECD delicately calls Chinese Taipei).

While U.S. student performance wasn’t great, it was 10 points higher than expected given how students fared on other tests, according to the OECD. Other countries also finished higher than expected for the same reason: South Korea, Japan, Serbia, England, Italy, and Brazil. In contrast, Bulgaria, Shanghai, Poland, and the United Arab Emirates did significantly worse than previous test scores suggested.

Students in Brazil, Ireland, South Korea, and the U.S. were relatively good at interactive problems—ones that required students to track down some of the information needed to solve the problem.

According to the OECD, boys outperformed girls in 23 of the 44 countries or regions—including in the U.S.; girls outperformed boys in five; and there was no significant difference in gender performance in 16.

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