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What Do Our 17-Year Olds Know?: A Report on the First National Assessment of History and Literature Paperback – September, 1988

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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

This addresses some of the same issues as Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind ( LJ 5/1/87) and E. D. Hirsch, Jr.'s Cultural Literacy ( LJ 6/1/87), but with less crankiness. All three books agree that history and literature need to be re-emphasized in curriculums. The present work focuses on 11th grade youngsters and the results of the first national test of students' knowledge of history and literature, funded by the NEH. It goes behind the scores to identify factors in higher achievement, and includes recommendations for teaching. A thoughtful, objective work by two distinguished authors. Recommended. Annette V. Janes, Director Hamilton P.L., Mass.
Copyright 1987 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Harpercollins (September 1988)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 006091520X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060915209
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.1 x 8.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,806,122 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Diane Ravitch

I was born in Houston, Texas, in 1938. I am third of eight children. I attended the public schools in Houston from kindergarten through high school (San Jacinto High School, 1956, yay!). I then went to Wellesley College, where I graduated in 1960.

Within weeks after graduation from Wellesley, I married. The early years of my marriage were devoted to raising my children. I had three sons: Joseph, Steven, and Michael. Steven died of leukemia in 1966. I now have four grandsons, Nico, Aidan, Elijah, and Asher.

I began working on my first book in the late 1960s. I also began graduate studies at Columbia University. My mentor was Lawrence A. Cremin, a great historian of education. The resulting book was a history of the New York City public schools, called "The Great School Wars," published in 1974. I received my Ph.D. in the history of American education in 1975. In 1977, I wrote "The Revisionists Revised." In 1983 came "The Troubled Crusade." In 1985, "The Schools We Deserve." In 1987, with my friend Checker Finn, "What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?" In 1991, "The American Reader." In 1995, "National Standards in American Education." In 2000, "Left Back." In 2003, "The Language Police." In 2006, "The English Reader," with my son Michael Ravitch. Also in 2006, "Edspeak." I have also edited several books with Joseph Viteritti.

My last book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education," was a national bestseller. It addressed the most important education issues of our time. It was read by teachers, parents, and students and was a source of great joy to me.

My newest book "Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools" is a call to arms. It documents the false narrative that has been used to attack American public education, and names names. It also contains specific and evidence-based recommendations about how we can improve our schools and our society.

To follow my ongoing work read my blog at, where there is a lively conversation among educators and parents about the future of education.

Diane Ravitch

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By SS Ranto on December 18, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn assessed high school seniors' grasp of American history and literature in their classic book, What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know, released in 1987. The conclusions of What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know may be more relevant today than they were 25 years ago. Ravitch and Finn write about the amount of information available to the average teenager. Today's students are even more bombarded with information--from computers and cell phones--nonexistent in 1987.

"But can they make sense of what they see and hear? Do they have the perspective to separate what is important from what is trivial? What is durable from what is ephemeral? Can they interpret the significance of the day's news? Are they able to discern patterns of trends and events? Are they capable of introspection? Can they relate their experiences to universal themes that have been explored by great writers through the ages? These are only a few of the potential benefits of the study of history and literature" (P.202).

Ravitch and Finn found that students scored poorly in their understanding of history and literature. Things are worse now. Students, especially boys, read less today than they did in the 1980s, and their corresponding amount of knowledge has shrunk further.

Thus the answer to all of Ravitch and Finn's questions above would be an emphatic "no!" Only the elite, perhaps the top 20 percent of graduating California high school seniors can separate the wheat from the chafe and put their experience in a larger context and make sense of the world around them. I find these kids in our Advanced Placement (college-level) program.

Once we have mastered literacy concerns the history itself may be understood. So literacy becomes a part of most lessons.
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4 of 8 people found the following review helpful By demos on August 14, 2007
Format: Paperback
1 star is too generous for a book that posses as a report but is a collection of unsubstantiated opinions based on a multiple choice test that would render any freshman in his/her quantitative research course an F-. For example, there exists no bibliography or endnotes. Neither is there a useful description of rudimentary elements of the study, such as how and where students were selected. We are simply told there were 8000 students "divided up by region (i.e., northeast, central, west, and southeast) and by size and type of community." We are not told of how groups were assigned within the study or if this was even a consideration.
There are tables of correct and incorrect scores, percentages and assigned letter grades but no discussion of validity or reliability, either internal or external, nor is there any mention of the study's generalizability. While there is a description of the questions, there is no actual list of the questions on the test, nor any indication of where they could be found. The only thing we know about how the questions were derived is that they were discarded by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)and used by Ravitch and Finn. (Ravitch should formally disown this project)
The likelihood that this collection of discarded questions could generate a reliable and valid test is laughable. Indeed, one should probably question the likelihood that the results of such a collection is capable of telling us much of anything at all--except, perhaps, that Harvard and Columbia may need to require more credits on the rudiments of quantitative research.
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1 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Kindle Customer on March 13, 2003
Format: Hardcover
A groundbreaking book when it came out.
For the past 20 years, Chester Finn has been a behind the scenes and in some cases, in front of the crowd leader for most of the great education reforms that have occurred in the past 20 years. Having had the great fortune to be one of Finn's students at Vanderbilt many years ago, I have had a chance to read the plethora of great books and articles that Finn has published. This is another in that series. Don't just buy this book and The Educated Child (which apparently is a huge bestseller) go back and buy all his books. Finn is a great academic who is blessed with an ability to communicate to the common person.
Finn may talk about the education that children receive but he is the best educator a parent can ever find.
Don McNay...
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