It’s an old canard that Asian students outperform Americans on international tests of math, science, and reading skills because their schools emphasize rote memorization. In contrast, American schools are said to foster creative thinking, which supposedly leads to better problem-solving skills.
However, new research upends this narrative. The New York Times reports that while American students score above the average of those in the developed world on exams assessing problem-solving skills, they trail countries like China, South Korea, and Japan. “Critics of the rankings on international tests have tended to characterize the high performance of Asian countries in particular as demonstrating the rote learning of facts and formulas[,]” the Times writes, “But the problem-solving results showed that students in the highest-performing nations were also able to think flexibly.”
This news comes in light of another Times article highlighting the continued relevance of the SAT to many employers. Despite criticism of the test from the left and right, it seems that “elite employers like McKinsey & Company, Bain & Company and Goldman Sachs” still want to know job applicants’ SAT scores.
What does all this add up to?
At the very least, it indicates that those who oppose higher standards of academic excellence and standardized testing in the name of fostering critical thinking and problem solving ought to temper their crusade. Bringing more standardization to higher education by adopting stronger core curricula doesn’t make our students less creative and adaptive—it makes them better problem solvers.
Standardized entrance exams like the SAT and ACT, moreover, don’t turn students into test-taking robots, but unlike the grotesquely inflated transcripts from high schools and colleges, they provide a reliable metric of academic strength and weakness. And—remarkably—they do have predictive value that some very successful and effective industries value. It is no surprise that the Council for Aid to Education’s new CLA+ exam had such a warm reception from business and media. The nation is hungry for valid and reliable ways to measure such core collegiate skills as formal writing, analytical reasoning, and critical thinking.
The choice between teaching hard skills and fostering problem solving is a false one. So let’s fight to keep standards high, use clear metrics, and raise a generation of young people whose skills are rivaled by none.