June 30, 2004
Test Time

Can you pass this 8th grade final exam from an 1895 Kansas school? I might pass it, but the math section alone would probably relegate me to "short bus" classes the next year. What I found most notable:

  1. A complete lack of any nods toward "cultural sensitivity".
  2. An unapologetic concentration on basics.
  3. Multiple choice? What's multiple choice?
  4. A five hour test! For 14 year-olds!
  5. A total lack of religious references. Dings the conventional wisdom of 19th century America as a land of religious wacks.
  6. A simple, direct, and business-like tone.

It's been, God, more than twenty years since I got out of the 8th grade, but the tests I remember were nothing like this, and if they had been:

  • Significant numbers of teachers wouldn't have been able to understand the questions, let alone grade the answers (thanks NEA!)
  • The black leadership in town would've run picket lines, and drawn national media attention, protesting such a "racist" test.
  • The white leadership in town would've crushed the entire administration because their pampered princes and princesses, unable to copy from the nerds, would've flunked in droves.
  • The working classes of both races would've flipped because their cherished champion high school football and basketball teams would've started the next year with perhaps one freshman recruit. Between them.

As I left the 8th grade Arkansas was instituting standardized tests (for students and teachers), and as I recall things like this did in fact happen. Nothing defines bloodsport more effectively than the politics surrounding schools, and the gladiatorial contests these initiatives created spattered impressive amounts of gore across the local papers. The sad thing is I'm not sure any of it did much good.

It's the fact that the century-old test has changed but the two-decade old experience might not that makes me seriously consider private schooling for Olivia.

Posted by scott at June 30, 2004 10:28 AM

eMail this entry!


Although I agree, education these days is a total joke (witness the surge in home-schooling), it would be nice to get back to the basic 3 R's and forget about political correctness.

Posted by: Bob on June 30, 2004 03:34 PM

woops! Thanks for the fact check! :)

Posted by: Scott on June 30, 2004 03:36 PM

Very interesting... I could probably get by on the math parts, but would be useless at good portions of the rest...

However, I do like the logic of the snopes post. very good. of course, I'd like to see everyone have to pass a logic test prior to getting out of HS...

Posted by: ron on June 30, 2004 05:48 PM

For some reason, when I post a link to BoingBoing it doesn't show up. Since I am in high dudgeon about something completely unrelated, I will scold YOU instead.

Cory posted the 1895 8th grade graduation test (the full thing is below), without comment. From BoingBoing, I expect thinking and commenting. This thing was posted without any meaningful context. (To give Cory credit, (this test has been zooming around the internet since 1999, according to Snopes); doing some searches, I haven't been able to find any one else posting the test who does provide context.)

There are some unexpressed ideas (presuppositions) in the context-free posting of this exam:

1. Attendance requirements in Kansas then is the same as it is today: all children (about aged 13-14) would be in school
2. All children in school would have taken this test
3. A goodly percentage of the children taking this test would have passed
4. This test is more rigorous than children today take
5. Education back then was tougher than it is today

All of these presuppositions ought to be disputed, or at least addressed.

I'd like to know:

Historical context: how many children 13-14 years old were there in Salina County, Kansas? How many sat for this test? How many passed? What were the consequences to those who did not sit the test? Who sat and did not pass?

Educational context:
1. What do you have to know, or have mastered, to answer these questions, and do these elements of knowledge have utility today? (I am thinking principally about the grammar and orthography questions. I am not a defender of whole languagae--indeed, I think it is a crime against low income kids--but the implied knowledge in the grammar and othography questions also presuppose a highly structured way of teaching reading. I'm not arguing the rote kind of memorization is necessarily the best way to teach reading, writing, spelling, and exposition, but surely we can do better than we have been.)

2. Take your average 13 or 14 year old (more or less, exit age from 8th grade today)--how long would it take a good teacher to prepare a group of educationally competent kids to do well on this test? Note that a great many of the questions involve lot of it is rote memorization and recitation of facts. Note that many of the arithmetic questions involve knowning the relationships between various measures--such as cubic volume of a bushel, or the meaning of value of "m" in the following example: 40 boards 12 inches wide and 16 ft. long at $20 per m?

3. What would a similar test look like today? Could the average adult pass it without study?

There's lot more ranting at


or go to main for even more info.

Posted by: Liz Ditz on June 30, 2004 07:48 PM
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