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Howe Disputes Gloomy View of What 17-Year-Olds Know

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A prominent educator took issue last week with recent gloomy assessments of the state of American 17-year-olds' knowledge of history and literature.

Harold Howe 2nd, senior lecturer at Harvard University's graduate4school of education, said he viewed the results from the first national assessment in those subjects not as a cause for general alarm, but as ''a glass half-full with the potential for growth."

"In light of the numerous recent criticisms of American schools, I thought the answers provided a sig8nal that a surprising proportion of youngsters were learning some important things," said the former U.S. commissioner of education.

Mr. Howe's statement, issued in conjunction with a new report on the results of the assessment, contrasts sharply with the view offered by Diane Ravitch and Chester E. Finn Jr., who contracted with the National Endowment for the Humanities to analyze the test findings.

In their book, What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?, Ms. Ravitch, the education historian, and Mr. Finn, an assistant U.S. secretary of education, call the results "shameful," and suggest that students "are at risk of being handicapped by [their] ignorance upon entry into adulthood, citizenship, and parenthood." (See Education Week, Sept. 9, 1987.)

The report issued last week by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which conducted the test of 7,812 17-year-olds last year, states that "the majority of students have at least some knowledge upon which they can build."

"Although lack of student knowledge about some historical topics is a matter of serious concern," the report states, "about two-thirds of the questions were answered by more than half the 11th graders."

"The performance on the literature assessment was slightly lower," it continues, "perhaps in part because some of the questions asked were about specific works and authors not included in the curriculum until after the junior year in high school, if at all."

Other educators who commented on the results argued that they should spur policymakers to improve the teaching of history and literature.

"What the figures say can be interpreted blandly and optimistically, or as a call to action," said E.D. Hirsch Jr., the William R. Kenan Professor of English at the University of Virginia.

"I look forward to a future naep report showing that 90 percent of our young people know 90 percent of what every American ought to know about history and literature," continued Mr. Hirsch, author of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know. "Even when that time comes, we should still guard against complacency, and direct our efforts to the lagging 10 percent."

Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, suggested that teachers and scholars work together ''in a kind of peacetime Manhattan Project" to improve the curriculum in these disciplines.

Future naep assessments will provide more information on student knowledge of these areas, said Ina V.S. Mullis, deputy director of naep. The 1988 history assessment, she said, in addition to testing factual knowledge, will also include questions on American political and social life, as well as questions involving higher-order thinking skills.

"The 1988 survey will yield information on whether students have the reasoning skills to understand how history is interpreted and reconstructed," she said.

Copies of the naep report, "Literature and U.S. History: The Instructional Experience and Factual Knowledge of High-School Juniors," are available for $8.50 each, plus $1.50 for shipping and handling, from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, CN 6710, Princeton, N.J. 08541-6710.

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