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Despite the fact that public schools plunged into teaching about computers in the 1980s, hardly a dent has been made in the general lack of knowledge about computers among many students and teachers.

Fortunately, Utah is an exception to the gloomy report made this week by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The NAEP was set up 19 years ago by Congress to survey various education skills.The report was based on a study of 24,000 third, seventh, and 11th graders across the country. The findings are not encouraging. Many schools have spent a lot of money on computers, but access to the machines is still too limited, school curricula haven't changed to make effective use of them, and too many teachers are still inadequately trained.

The study found that not only did a majority of youngsters not understand the basic functions of computer programs, they did even more poorly on computer applications. Why? Because, said students, they hardly ever got the chance to practice on the machines.

The teachers themselves are not prepared. Up to a third of computer coordinators on school faculties said they did not feel adequate in teaching computer science.

By contrast, Utah seems to be doing all the right things, although school administrators are the first to acknowledge that they have a long way to go, particularly in training veteran teachers.

Unlike most states, Utah has minimal computer standards for all students from kindergarten through high school. In fact, a half-year of computer literacy is a high school graduation requirement,

Unhappily, student access to computers still varies tremendously. One problem is having enough equipment so that students can get the hands-on experience needed to meet the standards laid down by the state.

There are manuals and training guides available. All new teachers coming out of college are required to be computer literate, at least in a limited sense.

State education officials recognize that progress is uneven, varying from school to school and district to district. But they have a clear goal and are headed in the right direction.

As a result of all this effort, Utah is recognized as one of the national leaders in public school computer instruction. The state office gets calls from all over the country, requesting copies of its materials.

It's good to know that Utah is doing so well, in spite of the heavy odds due to expanding enrollments and financial shortages.

Computer literacy is vital. Students who are not properly taught and given the chance to practice are likely to remain computer illiterates. But the future of the nation, and the future of the students themselves, depend to some extent on how effectively they can cope with an increasingly computer-based society.