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National Assessement Finds Students Are Deficient in Analytical Skills

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Faced with a multiple-choice test, today's students generally have no problem choosing correct answers. But when they are asked to explain a story or poem in written prose, most offer superficial responses, demonstrating a lack of the analytic skills necessary to elaborate, interpret, and defend their views.

This is among the "disturbing" conclusions drawn by researchers from the results of the 1979-80 National Assessment of Reading and Literature, released last week by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (naep). Since 1969, the government-sponsored research organization has made annual assessments of the achievement of American 9-, 13-, and 17-year-olds in a variety of subject areas. This was the first survey to link reading, writing, and literature in a single survey.

The assessment reveals that the number of students--especially 17-year-olds--who write in-depth answers has declined dramatically since 1971, the only previous assessment of students' ability to analyze literature.

In the earlier survey, 51 percent of the 17-year-olds tested offered "adequate" interpretations of a piece of literature. This time, only 41 percent of the group tested could provide a reasoned, thoughtful answer.

These findings, say the researchers who studied the test results, "seem to us a direct reflection of current emphases in testing and instruction," which favor recitation and discourage discussion. The result, they argue in Reading, Thinking and Writing, a summary of the assessment, is "an emphasis on shallow and superficial opinions at the expense of reasoned and disciplined thought."

Based on responses from about 106,000 9-, 13-, and 17-year-olds, the assessment also provided information about students' reading and television-watching habits.

Unlike many tests of "basic skills," the assessment's reading and thinking-skills section examined students' performance "beyond the boundaries traditionally ascribed to subject areas," according to the researchers.

The students were given examples of literary works and asked not only to respond to them in writing, but also to provide explanations of those responses. They were also asked how the works made them feel, and how worthwhile they thought they were.

The assessment, the authors say, "rests upon the assumption that in order to understand how well people read, we must look at their ability to read a range of materials and to express and explain their interpretations of what they have read."

Among other findings of the assessment:

Most of the students in all the age groups said that it is "very important" to be able to read--but 70 percent of the 17-year-olds said they read for pleasure once or twice a week at most. The majority of those surveyed view reading as a way to seek information, not pleasure, self-understanding, or cultural values.

About two-thirds of the students in each age group watch at least one to two hours of television a night. And regardless of age, the students would choose going to a movie over reading a book or magazine.

When asked to assess a literary work, most of the students in each age group either used "stock assertions" or merely restated the text.

Both 13-year-olds and 17-year-olds were more likely merely to make judgments about a poem or story than to interpret and analyze the content.

The report's authors draw several "disturbing" conclusions from these results. They write: "Looking at the results across a wide range of items and tasks, our major conclusion is that American schools have been reasonably successful in teaching the majority of students to [comprehend what they read], but have failed to teach more than 5 to 10 percent to move beyond their initial reading of a text.

"One of the most telling and immediately disturbing conclusions we can draw from these findings is that hardly any of the students--9-year-olds, 13-year-olds or 17-year-olds--showed evidence of having and using a systematic approach to the analytic tasks," the authors write.

School administrators and teachers could restructure the objectives and activities of programs in several ways to provide students with more opportunities to develop the analytic skills that they lack, according to the report.

In schools' testing programs, the researchers suggest, administrators should routinely include essay questions that require students to explain their point of view. They should also encourage all teachers--not just English and social studies instructors--to make writing and discussion a regular aspect of classroom instruction. Since both activities are time-consuming for teachers, the authors recommend "institutional support": released time, teaching aides, or smaller classes.

According to the report, teachers can also initiate changes that provide students with greater exposure to analysis and explanatory writing. Students should be encouraged to express and defend their opinions and should have regular opportunities to write at length.

Copies of Reading, Thinking and Writing (11-L-01) are available from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Suite 700, 1860 Lincoln St., Denver, Colo. 80295.

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