1912 test for 8th graders: Could you pass?

In 1912, 8th graders in rural Kentucky were expected to know things about  the Gulf Stream, the secretions of the liver, copyright, the battle of Quebec and how to spell (and define) “adjective.”

Were children smarter then? asks the Daily Mail.

Certainly, learning by rote was fashionable. Critical thinking was not. One commenter argued it’s not a bad thing to memorize basic geography.

Doing so allows me to read a newspaper article and understand where it is taking place. Memorizing historical facts allows me to interpret that article and put modern day occurrences into context.

She continued: ‘I work with a lot of “smart” kids who might read about the situation in Israel/Palestine, but can’t find those places on a map, and have no idea about their basic history. Thus, no context, rendering “smart” somewhat irrelevant.’

Others argued poor and working-class children dropped out before 8th grade. However, 845 of 1,032 children aged 10 to 14 in Bullitt County were attending school in 1910. By contrast, only half of children 15 to 17 were in school.

About Joanne


  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    As you well know, Joanne, these tests surface every now and then. I’m rarely troubled by them. The fact is that a nontrivial portion of this exam is irrelevant today; we simply focus on different things…. and *more* things.

    For the stuff that never changes — the math, the spelling, the grammar — that’s pretty straightforward and easy. It’s the subjective stuff that really gets you. Who the heck is Peter Stuyvesant? I had to look it up — though I correctly guessed that he had something to do with New York based on Stuyvesant high school. The fact is that we don’t have time for remembering Peter Stuuyvesant by name in today’s history curriculum — we’ve got 100 additional years of American History to cover, and more science. And more literature, frankly.

    Here’s what I am saying: I don’t feel the slightest bit ashamed about not knowing who Peter Stuyvesant is. Learning about individual people is much more a matter of value judgments than (supposedly) objective facts. (I say “supposedly” because choosing math over, say, agriculture is a value judgment of sorts.)

    I do, however, feel a little ashamed that I couldn’t remember what the Erie Canal connected — though I could tell you why it was important.

    But even that really comes down to my own sense of what’s important and what’s not. The really interesting questions are (1) which things on this exam are really timeless, and (2) which things on this exam are not timeless, but are still relevant today?

    The single most interesting thing about this exam is that it appears to have been produced by the School Board.

    We need more of that.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      If a school board tried to produce a test like this today, they would quickly be told that they are amateurs who don’t understand and that they should leave it up to the professionals. They would also be told that the attempt showed an insulting lack of confidence in the teachers.

      • As well as an unhealthy attraction to “mere facts”, as opposed to “critical thinking”.

      • Exactly where is it that you live, where eight grade students don’t regularly undergo district-wide, standardized tests?

    • Your lack of Eerie Canal knowledge points to a sad hole in your Music studies–

      American folk music gives the answer:
      I’ve Got a Mule, Her name is Sal
      Fifteen Miles on the Eerie Canal
      She’s a Good Old Worker and a Good old Pal
      15 miles on the Eerie Canal
      We’ve hauled some barges in our day
      Full of Lumber, Coal, and Hay
      Cause we know every inch of the way
      From Albany to Buffalo-o……..

      More proof the Core Knowledge folk know what they’re doing!

  2. Some years ago, I came across a box of Depression Era Regents Math booklets at an estate sale; and some wonderful notebooks belonging to a man who went on to be an engineering professor … when I had students who thought they were good at today’s Algebra I or whatever, I’d hand them some photocopies of that to try, after marking out stuff that wasn’t in our curriculum. Like interpolating or reading log tables.

    Good fun.

    Those exams, at least the math, were harder.

    @Michael Lopez: Well we’ve got more history, but a significant fraction can’t name the teams for WWII or find Iraq or Afghanistan, I remember a Rand Corp survey that found that 1/6 high school students couldn’t find the US on a world map. Certain things just shouldn’t be negotiable.

    For bonus points, who was Samuel Gompers?

  3. “However, 845 of 1,032 children aged 10 to 14 in Bullitt County were attending school in 1910. By contrast, only half of children 15 to 17 were in school.”

    Everytime someone complains about how bad schools are today, and complains about graduation rates, statistics like these need to be brought up. Education is not in crisis, we’ve changed the rules and moved the goalposts.

    • Classics Mom says:

      Gahrie- I see your point but many school districts such as DC have drop out rates of about 40%. Also, the 8th grade students back then often learned more than high school graduates today. Both of my grandfathers only attended school only up to 8th grade back then and yet they knew much more than many of today’s graduates IMO.

  4. Sigivald says:

    “What properties have verbs?”

    Beats me – and I have a humanities degree with a lot of English classes.

    The thing is not that “nobody knows that stuff anymore”, but more that “it isn’t taught in those terms“.

    (Likewise the “degrees of comparison” of adverbs. I’m sure I know how to use adverbs just as well as someone who could pass that test – but I don’t know that term of art used by a hundred-year-old teaching method, so I couldn’t answer the question “correctly”.)

    (And of course many of the other questions are irrelevant due to changed context.

    I mean, five county officers and their duties? I have no idea – because here in metropolitan Oregon the County government is basically invisible, apart from the Sheriff’s office. If I lived someplace more rural, or back East, it might matter.)

  5. I would say that those kids who could pass this exam were decently-educated individuals; literate, numerate and possessed of enough general knowledge to (1) carry out civic responsibilities and (2) acquire more knowledge, on their own. It’s far beyond what far too many of the current 8th-grade grads can manage.

  6. The fact that the name of the local Truant Officer is on the bottom of this test leads me to suspect that it was a punishment assignment for skipping school one too many times, and not the regular curriculum. But that is interesting in and of itself. Would teachers or adminstrators today ever resort to this type of punishment? Or would it be deemed cruel and unusual?

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    It’s easy enough to separate the questions specific to the place and time, like county officers and the like. In fact, if we pretend that’s all there are…there’s no problem with today’s education.
    But one asks the kid to solve a right triangle. Wasn’t done until plane geometry, which was tenth grade when I was in HS. So forth.
    Somebody, maybe Mencken, said war is American’s way of learning geography. Nice to see there used to be another way.
    Nope, cavil as you might about Stuyvesant, this is sobering. And if you truly want to cavil about Stuyvesant, name a couple of equally important guys within the last century–or decade–you think kids should know about. Miley Cyrus doesn’t count.

    • Seward’s Icebox, anyone?

      • Momof4,

        That’s the state of Alaska, which was purchased
        from Russia, and it was actually nicknamed ‘Seward’s
        Folly’ due to the fact that a lot of people thought we
        overpaid Russia for the Alaska Territory, but that was
        before we found oil and other goodies there 🙂

        • Right – It was a pretty great deal. Seward was one of the first guys to pop into my head, since I was just looking up a couple of places near the Alaska Panhandle (and it’s much easier to find those if you actually know where the Alaska Panhandle is).

          • …and of course you had the rich cultural knowledge of what a “panhandle” is so you knew just about where to look on the map.

            Didn’t the Russian’s spend much of the Alaska windfall on having Western Union build a telegraph? Talk about government supported ventures.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      ” And if you truly want to cavil about Stuyvesant, name a couple of equally important guys within the last century–or decade–you think kids should know about. Miley Cyrus doesn’t count.”


      Katy Perry comes to mind. Not because she is a pop singer, but because her father, governor of Texas, *could* have run for president in 2012 and having her campaign for him would have been huge. Additionally, she *has* to be the great-grand-daughter of the guy who “opened up Japan.”


      They were so ignorant back in 1912 … probably didn’t even know who she was.

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        Mark. I said Miley Cyrus doesn’t count. Being related to the great and near-great or once important doesn’t count. But it would be interesting to know if those who know of Katy Perry know the rest of the story. I don’t follow pop music, so, although I’d heard the name, nothing came to mind.
        If we’re substituting for Stuyvesant, I suppose we could try Rudy Giulani. Paul Ray Smith (R.I.P.) People used to know enough about Rodger Young that Heinlein could put him into a short expecting people to get it. Marmur has a short in which he refers to that “cruel time when Corregidor was bleeding and Bataan”. Knew readers would get it.
        Reading books more than, say, forty years old tells you what the writer, usually accurately, could expect his audience to know. Heinlein’s short, “The Long Watch”, was a juvie, for heaven’s sake.

        • Mark Roulo says:

          Um … I made that all up 🙂

          Last year I was wondering if Perry might get some of the youth votebecause had the same last name as the singer …

          • Richard Aubrey says:

            Figures. Sometimes it doesn’t suck to be old. And, yes, the lo-fos would take that as the height of political savvy.

  8. Ann in L.A. says:

    I actually thought the math problems were comparable to the ones our kids have to do for the middle-level ISEE exam (independent school entrance exam), which they take half-way through 7th grade. I didn’t see anything on there our kid couldn’t do at that age–except for knowing what a cord is and maybe how many feet in a mile.

    In fact, I’ve been stressing the 3-4-5 triangle (Arithmetic problem #8) with our 6th grader; and pointing out that if they have a problem like that, look for the 3-4-5, because that’s usually what they’ll throw at you.