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Students' Knowledge of History, Literature 'Shameful,' National Assessment Indicates

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American 17-year-olds display a "shameful" lack of knowledge about history and literature, according to a new book that analyzes the first national assessment of those subjects.

What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?, to be published this week by Harper and Row Publishers Inc., was written by Diane Ravitch, adjunct professor of history and education at Columbia University's Teachers' College, and Chester E. Finn Jr., assistant secretary of education for educational research and improvement.

If the assessment were graded like a test, the authors write, most students would have failed. On average, students correctly answered 54.5 percent of the history questions and 51.8 percent of the literature questions.

While some students performed well on the assessment, most did not, and many students were unable to answer such basic questions as when Columbus sailed to the New World or who wrote Crime and Punishment, the authors state.

"We do not assert that our 17-year-olds are stupid, that they are apathetic, or that they are short on savvy, creativity, and energy," Ms. Ravitch and Mr. Finn write. "We do not contend that the 'younger generation is going to the dogs."'

"We merely conclude that it is ignorant of important things that it should know," they add. "And that it and other generations to follow are at risk of being gravely handicapped by that ignorance upon entry into adulthood, citizenship, and parenthood."

The authors recommend that all schools be required to teach a core curriculum of history and literature at every grade level; that teachers be given opportunities to select teaching materials and to develop their subject-matter expertise; and that administrators open up the teaching profession to adults with degrees in history and literature.

In addition, they propose, university history and literature faculties should work more closely with schools, and parents should encourage their children to read more, and at an early age.

What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? was based on a 1986 assessment of 7,812 students, conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federally funded agency that regularly administers tests of student performance in core subject areas. The study was initiated by the Educational Excellence Network, which the two authors created in 1981, under a $369,636 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The book was originally scheduled to be released later this week, but its release date was moved up after reporters from major news outlets complained because Harper and Row had waived its tight news embargo for The New York Times.

Reporters who were denied embargoed copies of the book also complained to endowment officials that the federally underwritten data from the naep assessment were being withheld to bolster Harper and Row's sales of the $15.95 book. Apparently in response, the humanities endowment last week said the findings would be made available in "data tape" form this week. The endowment had previously said naep officials4were not scheduled to deliver the data until the end of this month.

A spokesman for the endowment said last week that the agency had no plans to publish the findings in a printed version.

History Performance 'Weak'

The book is the second report in recent weeks to be based on the results of the naep assessment. Last month, Lynne V. Cheney, chairman of the neh, released a monograph called "American Memory," which found schools' emphasis on teaching skills, rather than facts, was responsible for "startling gaps in knowledge" about the humanities among students.

Ms. Ravitch and Mr. Finn argue that the school-reform movement of the past five years has intensified the drive to teach skills, and has done little to improve instruction in history and literature.

"In the battle for public attention and curricular time," they note, "the humanities were scarcely contenders."

Yet, as the assessment shows, students' knowledge of those fields is lacking, the authors note.

Of the 141 history questions on the assessment, just 15 were answered correctly by at least 80 percent of the students, while 81 were answered correctly by fewer than 60 percent of the students.

While that performance is "extremely weak," the authors write, it can be considered even weaker, since 78.4 percent of the students were enrolled in a U.S. history class at the time they took the assessment.

The students performed best on questions related to geography and science and technology, and poorest on those on the colonial era and Reconstruction.

Even on questions a majority answered correctly, the study found, a surprisingly high proportion of students did not know basic facts. For example, 31.9 percent did not know that Columbus reached the New World before 1750, and one student in five did not know when, where, and by whom the first atomic bomb was dropped.

Performance on the literature assessment was equally "disappointing," the authors write. Of the 121 questions, 14 were answered correctly by 80 percent or more of the students, while 70 were answered correctly by 60 percent or fewer.

Students performed better on questions they could answer through "pop-culture knowledge," than they did on items they would have learned only in school, the authors note. "If the questions involve something that has turned up in the movies, television, the cartoons, comic books, advertising, or other parts of the popular culture, students are more apt to know it than if it is encountered only in school," they write.

Questions about Shakespeare's plays, on which students performed relatively well, are exceptions to that rule, the authors note. "To those who suggest that today's youth are oblivious to Shakespeare, we must reply that it just isn't so," they write. "They are acquainted."

But students are generally unfamiliar with many common allusions, particularly those drawn from the Bible and from mythology, that regularly appear in works of literature, the authors note.

The study also found that students in literature classes have scant exposure to nonfiction, such as speeches by Winston Churchill and Poor Richard's Almanac, and that history classes fail to make up the difference. An exception is the "I Have a Dream ..." speech, which 88 percent of students correctly attributed to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Group Performance

The study found differences in performance among groups. Girls, for example, performed better than boys on the literature assessment, while boys out-performed girls on history questions, it found. While the authors could not explain this discrepancy, they note that girls tend to read more than boys outside of school.

White and Asian students out-performed blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians, the study found. But the black students who performed well, it found, included those who live in suburban communities (7.6 percent of black students in the sample) and those who attend Catholic schools (4.4 percent of black students).

The high performance of Asian students, the authors note, should "help dispel the stereotypes of Asian students as a group of students gifted in science and math but relatively uninterested or incapable in the study of English language-based fields such as history and literature."

Home factors, particularly parental education, were closely related to performance in history and literature, the study found. But, it noted, minority youngsters with parents who are college graduates did not perform as well as white students whose parents are high-school graduates.

The report also found that high-scoring students tended to have books and computers at home, to have attended preschool, and to live with both parents. On the other hand, students who speak a language other than English at home tended to perform worse than others.

Students who reported doing more homework, attending school more regularly, and reading more in their spare time, performed better than other students, the study found.

Further, it found that performance declines as television watching increases; however, it notes, Hispanic students in rural areas--whose scores are generally the lowest of any group--who watched two to three hours of television a day, performed better than those who watched less often.

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