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Vermont Students Required To Pass Basic ~'Reasoning' Test

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By 1983, students in Vermont will not only have to master basic reading, writing, listening, speaking, and computation skills before they may graduate from high school, but they also will have to demonstrate proficiency in "reasoning."

The Vermont State Board of Education in 1976 adopted a policy that required students to achieve a minimum level of competence in the basic skills before they could be awarded a diploma. In 1978, the school board added reasoning--which it defined as the ability to approach day-to-day problems with intelligent decision-making skills--to the skills to be mastered.

In doing so, according to James G. Lengel, chief of elementary curriculum, Vermont became the first state to require that students "understand and interpret facts or see beyond a problem."

Vermont's requirement that students learn to reason addresses what many educators in the nation have identified as a weakness in the schools. Most recently, the National Assessment of Educational Progress concluded in its study of reading habits that students have difficulty interpreting what they read and are not prepared to take a position and defend it.

The study, Reading, Thinking and Writing, reported that "older students provide more evidence to support their assertions than do younger ones; yet even among older students, explanations remain superficial and contain few references to the material read or comparisons with other works."

Vermont's school officials say they have not attempted to define reasoning in a philosophical sense.

Instead, they have developed a list of reasoning skills deemed "teachable and appropriate to a school program."

The basic skills in reasoning as outlined by the state include:

Problem solving. The ability to observe and define a problem, identify possible causes, suggest probable solutions, and predict likely consequences.

Classifying and organizing. The ability to group objects, events, and ideas, to put them in sequence, and to distinguish between fact and opinion.

Making reasoned judgments. The ability to review and summarize information, take a defendable position, understand the views and reasons of others, and draw a supportable conclusion.

Research skills. The ability to use commonly available sources to gather and organize information.

Mr. Lengel said students currently in the 10th grade will be the first class to graduate under the state's new policy. In its mandate, the school board further required that local school officials maintain a ''pupil progress record" for each student, from kindergarten through grade 12.

"You can't cover one of our reasoning skills, like distinguishing between fact and opinion, and expect students to know the difference from year to year," Mr. Lengel said. "You have to teach reasoning principles every year."

The Vermont Department of Education was impeded somewhat by the novelty of the idea. There are no "reasoning" textbooks on the market, Mr. Lengel said, and no other state could offer assistance, so the department was forced to develop its own teachers' guides. It has taken two years to develop several different approaches to the subject, using both innovative and traditional teaching methods, according to Mr. Lengel.

The teachers most comfortable with incorporating "reasoning" as a basic skill, according to Mr. Lengel, have been in the sciences and social studies. "Those teachers seem to take responsibility for it in the schools," he said. "The math and science teachers have their own to look after. Any event in history or experiment in science can be an exercise in reasoning."

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