An international study gauges students' computer and information literacy skills, along with computational thinking.

Are students’ information literacy skills up to par?

An international study gauges students' computer and information literacy skills, along with computational thinking

U.S. eighth-graders scored above the international average for computer and information literacy, but they also struggle with some key 21st-century employability skills, according to an international study.

The International Computer and Information Literacy Study (ICILS) measures eighth-graders’ ability to use computers to investigate, create, participate, and communicate at home, at school, in their future workplace, and in their communities. The 2018 study’s results were released in the United States by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), marking the first time that U.S. ICILS data are available.

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“The study shows that the idea of the ‘digital native’ is more myth than reality,” says Peggy G. Carr, associate commissioner for assessment at NCES. “Today’s eighth-graders were raised in a world in which computers and smartphones are commonplace, but the majority of them were unable to execute basic tasks independently. Clearly, we have work to do to ensure that our students are prepared to use digital devices to successfully navigate all aspects of life.”

While 90 percent of U.S. students demonstrated a functional working knowledge of computers as tools and were able to complete simple tasks, such as opening a link in a new browser tab, an alarmingly smaller group–25 percent of U.S. eighth-graders–was able to independently use computers as tools (such as for gathering information or managing work) and successfully distinguish the reliability of web-based information. The assessment found that girls in the U.S. and internationally scored higher than boys in computer information literacy.

In addition to computer and information literacy, ICILS also measured a new, optional domain for the first time in 2018: computational thinking. Nine education systems, including the United States, tested computational thinking, which is the type of thinking used when programming a computer. It involves conceptualizing problems (through algorithmic or systems thinking) and operationalizing solutions (creating, implementing, and evaluating computer-based solutions to problems). The overall U.S. score for computational thinking was not measurably different from the ICILS average.

For computational thinking, the United States had larger percentages of students at both the highest and lowest performance levels (20 percent and 35 percent, respectively) compared to other participating education systems.

Students at the highest level demonstrated an understanding of computation as a problem-solving network, meaning they could evaluate and implement efficient solutions to complex coding problems using non-linear and conditional logic. Students at the lowest level, on the other hand, demonstrated a functional working knowledge of basic conventions of digital systems, such as simple coding and the relationship between input and output, but struggled to successfully demonstrate higher-level skills and understanding.

ICILS also asked students and teachers about their experiences using information and communications technologies (ICT).

Eighty-six percent of teachers “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that ICT was considered a priority for use in teaching at their schools, which was comparable with the ICILS average. Higher percentages of U.S. teachers than the ICILS average reported participating in professional learning ICT activities, such as training on subject-specific digital teaching and learning resources (70 percent compared with 50 percent).

However, just half of U.S. teachers reported using ICT when teaching, which was on par with the ICILS average. Students in education systems where a higher proportion of teachers reported using ICT in their teaching tended to outperform U.S. students overall in both computer and information literacy and computational thinking.

“The results of this study not only tell us that we can and must improve, they also help us better understand how to help students strengthen their digital capabilities,” says NCES Commissioner James L. Woodworth. “While the majority of American students are learning some key digital skills from their teachers, other critical skills are self-taught. Only 1 in 4 students can evaluate the reliability of information they find on a webpage and evaluate information that might be biased.”

Material from a press release was used in this report.

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