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Testing Problem-Solving

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This year, some 20,000 eighth graders took part in a new test of technological and engineering literacy. The computer-based test asked students to solve the kinds of problems used in real settings, like fixing a broken water pump, and measured how they came up with solutions. Thus the test is a measure of students' abilities to solve genuine problems, as well as a test of their engineering knowledge.

As Liana Heitin writes in Education Week, the test, which is oart of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), has been a hit with leaders in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields, as well as with students. Peggy Carr, who directs NAEP at the National Center on Education Statistics, told Heitin that students who were not selected to take the test "were coming to the door wanting to take it."

Results of the test are expected to be released in 2016. But another test, whose results were released last month, suggests that U.S. students might fare fairly well. As part of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development administered a test of creative problem-solving. Like the NAEP test, the PISA problem-solving test measured students' abilities to confront a real-world problem and come up with a solution. And U.S. fifteen-year-olds performed above the average of industrialized countries--far better than they did in mathematics and literacy.

These abilities are increasingly important. As the PISA report states, the twenty-first century workplace places a premium on the ability to solve non-routine problems. "In modern societies, all of life is problem solving," the report states. "Changes in society, the environment and in technology mean that the content of applicable knowledge evolves rapidly. Today's 15-year-olds are the Robinson Crusoes of a future that remains largely unknown to us. Adapting, learning, daring to try out new things, and always being ready to learn from mistakes are among the keys to resilience and success in an unpredictable world."

The NAEP test reflects the growing recognition of that realization. And maybe the attention the assessment receives might encourage more schools to focus on problem solving.

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