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Presidential Scholars Showing On Education Quiz Termed ‘Respectable’

June 14, 1988

WASHINGTON (AP) _ What do presidential scholars know? Apparently a good bit more than the typical 17-year-old.

But a good many still were stumped by some questions on a federal education officials’ quiz on U.S. history and literature.

Chester Finn Jr., the assistant secretary of education for research and improvement, said Tuesday that the Presidential Scholars who took the multiple-choice test answered an average of 86 percent of the questions correctly.

That compared with a 48 percent score for 8,000 juniors who answered the same questions in 1986 as part of a National Assessment of Educational Progress test.

Finn, who co-authored a book about the results called ″What Do Our 17- year-olds Know?″ said it was a respectable showing.

But many of the Presidential Scholars - some of the nation’s top high school seniors being honored here this week in four days of ceremonies and seminars - missed some questions that Finn clearly thought they should have known.

Only 63 percent of the scholars picked ″Speak softly and carry a big stick″ as the phrase that characterized U.S. foreign policy during the early 1900s. Only 32 percent of the 17-year-olds tested in 1986 got that right. The phrase is a quotation from President Theodore Roosevelt.

Only 48 percent picked Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor as authors known for stories set in the South; the national average was 14 percent.

Fifty percent correctly picked Jane Addams as the founder of settlement houses to help the urban poor; the national average was 41 percent.

Fifty-one percent identified Richard Wright as the author of ″Native Son,″ a novel of black life in Chicago; the national average was 32 percent.

Finn said, ″A hundred and one of you had the courage to actually take this test. This of course skews the results since the 20 or so of you who ducked it undoubtedly would have done worse on it. You were not a representative sample even of yourselves.″

At a session hosted by the Education Department for the scholars, he called the 86 percent score ″pretty good,″ but not cause for any swelled heads.

Finn outlined Reagan administration critiques of American schools and why it favors merit pay for teachers and other policies to spur improvements.

When John Kandara of Winston-Salem, N.C., asked about the anxiety that teacher career ladder plans can cause, Finn replied, ″In most professions, competition is not considered a vice. Are you familiar with the Olympics? Indeed, are you familiar with Presidential Scholars?″

″American kids in general just don’t go to school enough,″ said Finn, who said a teen magazine generated a flood of letters criticizing him for a recent article in which he advocated year-round schools.

″The most interesting about the letters was how many were utterly incoherent,″ said Finn.

Scott Murphy, a scholar from Columbia, Mo., asked how American universities achieve world eminence ″with students who are so far inferior?″

Finn replied that the best American research universities are second to none, but ″an awful lot of colleges are driven by the dynamics of keeping their classes full.″

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