IRS Whistleblower-Informant Award
US Accounting Standard Setting

Students Lack Critical Thinking Skills

Academically Adrift

In a previous blog I reported about the low ranking of American students in mathematics and science when compared with their counterparts around the world.  American students were ranked 28th and 24th in mathematics and science, respectively, in an international assessment of 15 year olds? Now, a study summarized in the new book, "Academically Adrift," questions whether students are learning the critical thinking skills needed to compete in a global economy. The study, published by the Social Science Research Council, tracked several thousand college students' performance on a critical thinking test from their first year on campus through their fourth year. Some 45% of students showed no significant improvement after two years of college, and 36% didn't improve after four years. While the results are troubling, it is flawed because it had no way of requiring students who sat for the test as freshmen to sit for the follow-up test as seniors, and more than half didn't do so.  Still, critical thinking skills are essential to success in the world. We face new challenges every day whether in our personal or professional lives. Rote learning can only go so far in such circumstances. Students need the ability to reason through new and unstructured problems. An interesting piece I read and highly recommend on the ability of students to memorize and become good test takers but failure to apply critical thinking skills appears on Pilant's Business Ethics Blog at The entire way that teachers teach and students learn is challenged in the article. Classroom

The  Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an assessment (begun in 2000) that focuses on 15-year-olds' capabilities in reading literacy, mathematics literacy, and science literacy. PISA studied students in 41 countries and assessed how well prepared students are for life beyond the classroom by focusing on the application of knowledge and skills to problems with a real-life context. Here is one task: "Develop a decision tree diagram for the Greenwood High School Library system so that an automated checking system can be designed to deal with book and magazine loans at the library.  Your checking system should be as efficient as possible (i.e. it should have the least number of checking steps). Note that each checking step should have only two outcomes and the outcomes should be labeled appropriately (e.g. 'Yes' and 'No')." The results show that only 13.5% of US students were able to correctly answer the question. Students in Shanghai did much better in comparison.

Peter Pappas analyzes the results and asks some important questions including: "Are American students able to analyze, reason, and communicate their ideas effectively? Do they have the capacity to continue learning throughout life? Have schools been forced to sacrifice creative problem solving for “adequate yearly progress” on state tests? I highly recommend reading the piece by Pappas at

So, what's the bottom line as we say in accounting? I believe the educational assessment tests that evaluate how well schools are doing should include a significant number of these types of questions. If our teachers are teaching to the test, let's give them the incentive to teach what students need to learn to be competitive in today's global economy. To support the goal of improving students' critical thinking skills, performance bonuses should be given to teachers whose students demonstrate the reasoning abilities envisioned by PISA. Why not use the PISA test to make such determinations?