8th Grade, 1895

I thought this was pretty interesting. It purports to be (and I have no reason to doubt that it is) an 8th grade final exam given in 1895 in Salina, KS.  I have seen it in the context of "gee, look how much worse our schools are" and to some extent that is unfair.  Sure, I think we all can get a gut feel from the test that expectations on students were a bit more unyielding and rigorous back then. One gets the sense that the Salina school district has not had to defend the test in court against charges that it discriminates against ... whatever and that they would not really understand the current public mantra that self-esteem should somehow trump learning and achievement.

But the fact that you and I can't answer a lot of the questions doesn't really mean much. Some of it would be hard to pass because it asks for frameworks we don't necessarily ascribe to today.  For example, it asks for the epochs into which US history is divided.  I have no idea what such epochs would be and in fact they are probably irrelevant given we have twice as much history as a country today as in 1895.  And it takes a minute to remember that when they say the "rebellion" they are probably talking about the Civil War.  And as to "orthography,"  I am not losing much sleep at night over not being able to "Give four substitutes for caret 'u'."

In general, the test reflects a shift in teaching from a lot of technical memorization to the more conceptual.  Kids who passed this test in 1895 could probably spell oddball words and fill out a map better than my kids, but I would be curious how well they would do on a five paragraph persuasive essay, something my eighth grader spends a lot of time on. 

Math is one area where my kid's education would blow this stuff away.  The math on this 1895 test is pretty tailored to the needs of a small farming town:

1. Name and define the Fundamental Rules of Arithmetic.

2. A wagon box is 2 ft. deep, 10 feet long, and 3 ft. wide. How many
bushels of wheat will it hold?

3. If a load of wheat weighs 3942 lbs., what is it worth at 50 cts.
per bu., deducting 1050 lbs. for tare?

4. District No. 33 has a valuation of $35,000. What is the necessary
levy to carry on a school seven months at $50 per month, and have
$104 for incidentals?

5. Find cost of 6720 lbs. coal at $6.00 per ton.

6. Find the interest of $512.60 for 8 months and 18 days at 7

7. What is the cost of 40 boards 12 inches wide and 16 ft. long at
$20 per m?

8. Find bank discount on $300 for 90 days (no grace) at 10

9. What is the cost of a square farm at $15 per are, the distance
around which is 640 rods?

10. Write a Bank Check, a Promissory Note, and a Receipt.

But by the end of eight grade my kids will have had two years of algebra, not necessarily because they are smarter than kids in 1895, but because perceived needs change.  My kids are more likely to need complex math for advanced science and technical degrees than they are going to need to be able to figure out how many bushels of grain will fit in the silo.  Further, where is the science on the test?  How about a second language? 

My kids go to a private school, so maybe public school parents have a different perspective.  There are a lot of reasons to criticize public schools today, but I don't think this test gives us much insight into them.


  1. Dan:

    Another possible reason for the disparity:

    I wonder how many of the farmers in rural Kansas in 1895 had more than an 8th grade education. Thus they were probably trying to cram all of the skills necessary to running a wheat farm into the first eight years - hence the expectation that an 8th grader should be able to write a promissory note and calculate the bushel capacity of a wagon.

    Today's 8th grade education is preparatory to four more years of high school, and thiose are normally considered to be prepaaratory to college. This time is a luxury that 18th century educators simply didn't have.

  2. Dave Moelling:

    I second Dan's comment. These questions reflect a set of knowledge organized in a very adult way of thinking. You were considered an adult and had to function in a wider world. My daughter although covering much more science and math, would not have been prepared to do this at the end of Junior High School.

    The real question is that will she when graduating high school be prepared to enter the adult world (or will that have to wait till after College)? My guess is no. Business, household finance, etc. must be our responsibility to teach at home.

  3. Greg:

    Most of the math problems from that sample look
    a lot like the word problems we see today and
    that I remember seeing in school.

    I have no doubt that the 1895 schooling demanded more,
    and held kids to a higher standard of knowledge
    and behavior, that we do today.

    I like #10 and I really think that our kids should
    get a lot more economic education before leaving
    high school. Balancing checkbooks, how money works,
    interest, taxation, budgeting, etc. I expect some
    of that might be considered subversive, though... ;)

  4. Craig:

    I couldn't disagree with you more. Education of children used to involve much more memorization and categorization as this test illustrates.

    It was understood, properly in my opinion, that rote knowledge was a necessary precursor to conceptual -- or as it's often called now -- critical thinking. Children need to know a lot of facts before they can begin thinking about how they relate to each other.

  5. Moosashi:

    While the units seen in these questions reflect the life and times of people in Kansas, 1895, the skills needed to answer them are still relevant and are generally lacking in the college freshmen I see as a graduate teaching assistant. The fundamental skill being tested here is dimensional analysis, or converting from one unit of measure to another. In the second question, the student is given the dimensions of a box in feet. They have to first calculate volume (a pretty standard skill even today) and then convert from ft^3 to bushels. To do this, you must set up a ratio of bushels to cubic feet such that cubic feet cancels out, leaving the final answer with bushels as the only unit. This is an essential skill for many kinds of basic calculations and most high school students today don't understand how to do it. I happened to learn it in AP Chemistry, after I had a semester of calculus under my belt. Guess which skill I use more as a doctoral student in the sciences.

  6. la petite chou chou:

    Oh, good ol' dimensional analysis. I remember learning that for the first time in 10th grade chemistry.

    I'm with Craig. And I especially like the section on Orthography---I love the fact that they placed so much emphasis on speaking and understanding language on people who were likely only to go as far as their parent's farm. It's a LOT more than we can say for basic education these days---I can't even remember 8th grade English.

    On another note, in 11th grade I had a class called "careers" (which they did away with) in which we learned how to write checks, etc. There was also "personal finance" which was required up until my graduating class before it was done away with entirely.

  7. Elliot:

    According to Snopes, this is an urban myth:

  8. Greg:

    Heh. Snopes has a good article and makes some pretty good points.

    Guess it pays to be a bit more ... skeptical about some things.