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Ravitch: Test Shows 'Cultural Illiteracy'

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Philadelphia--As education reformers focus their efforts on the so-called basic skills, another basic--the "cultural literacy" fostered by instruction in the humanities--is showing "disturbing" signs of neglect.

That is the charge leveled last week by Diane Ravitch, adjunct professor of history at Columbia University's Teachers College, in an address to the National Council of Teachers of English.

And to back up her assessment, Ms. Ravitch referred to the results of a pilot test administered this year as part of the "Foundations of Literacy" project sponsored by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Educational Excellence Network at Vanderbilt University.

The test, developed under a $369,636 neh grant, will be given to a broader national sample of 17-year-olds next spring as part of naep's national assessment. It is designed to determine how well high-school students are learning about literature and history.

Test Results Disappointing

The results of the pilot-testing, said Ms. Ravitch, are not encouraging. The shallow base of literary and historical knowledge displayed by most of the test takers, she said, presented a "compelling case" for the improvement of humanities instruc4tion in the curriculum.

Though most students had a familiarity with the plots of fairy tales, Romeo and Juliet, and Frankenstein, Ms. Ravitch noted, half of those taking the test did not recognize the plot of George Orwell's 1984, most had not read Catcher in the Rye, and only half had read The Great Gatsby.

And while the students were generally familiar with Adam and Eve, most had never heard of Job, the Tower of Babel, or Armageddon.

Ms. Ravitch said that while she did not think students should be required to study the Bible in public schools, the fact that so few could recognize Biblical references that appear repeatedly in Western literature and history was dismaying.

The test also revealed, she said, that most of the 17-year-olds had never heard of John Donne, Walt Whitman, Willa Cather, and several other well-known literary figures.

History Results

The results of the history portion of the test were "not much better," said Ms. Ravitch.

She said the test revealed, for example, that students' sense of historical chronology is "sorely deficient." Most were unable to correctly identify the half-centuries in which the Civil War, World War I, and the signing of the Declaration of Independence took place.

In addition, one-third of the test takers could not locate Great Britain, France, or Germany on a map of the world. And half did not know the significance of the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Magna Carta, or Winston Churchill.

Ms. Ravitch suggested that the poor test performances could reflect the fact that most U.S. high-school students take only one year of American history. She also criticized the use of "culturally empty" textbooks to teach history and English. When schools use publications that are governed by readability formulas, she said, limitations are placed on what students actually learn.

Schools' Responsibility

Schools have a responsibility to expose students to the elements of cultural literacy, Ms. Ravitch said. She advised teachers to introduce students to the tales, myths, and stories that illustrate their past and form the core of general knowledge that "educated people" share, to incorporate biographies into the curriculum, and to focus on the backgrounds of historical figures.

"We can't be satisfied with the rise in test scores," Ms. Ravitch said, "unless we know at the same time that our children are learning about the cultural" context of core subjects. Otherwise, she said, children's understanding of the common culture will be defined by "network television programs."--ab

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