September 25, 2002
7:41 AM   Subscribe

Think you're smart? How does your test-taking ability stack up to your forebears? Could you have graduated eighth grade in 1895? Been accepted into college in the 1930s? What do you think - is it easier to be a student today or harder?
Oh, here's a cheat sheet in case the 8th grade exam proves too challenging!
posted by madamjujujive (31 comments total)
Thanks, now I have no self-esteem for the rest of the day.
posted by Dark Messiah at 7:48 AM on September 25, 2002

Of what use are rivers?
Of what use is the ocean?

These are indeed deep questions for grade 8.
posted by Fabulon7 at 7:48 AM on September 25, 2002

Debunked here, sorry.
posted by JoanArkham at 7:53 AM on September 25, 2002

7. Who were the following: Morse, Whitney, Fulton, Bell, Lincoln, Penn, and Howe?

Aren't those the original members of Yes?
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 7:55 AM on September 25, 2002

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

Heh. It's a bit antiquated, no? But impressive. I wonder what percentage of kids passed or failed these tests.
posted by Ufez Jones at 7:55 AM on September 25, 2002

Note to self, refresh window before posting comments.... Thanks Joan.
posted by Ufez Jones at 7:58 AM on September 25, 2002

Shoot, JoanArkham, that was going to be my post.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 7:59 AM on September 25, 2002

The University of Chicago exam from 1931 takes me back to my college days. I always appreciated professors (or teaching assistants as the case often was) who offered creative exam questions like the following: Write the Table of Contents and the Preface for a book entitled "Orthodoxy and Heresy from Augustine to Aquinas".

Of course, as it's been quite a long time since I read anything by or about Augustine or Aquinas, I'm afraid my answer would be comically incorrect.
posted by aladfar at 8:05 AM on September 25, 2002

Laura Ingalls Wilder (who wrote the Little House series) taught school for three years, beginning at the age of fifteen. In the last chapter of Little Town on the Prairie, she describes the exam she took to get her teacher's license. As I recall, she had to do long division, diagram a sentence, and recount some history and geography. It didn't sound that hard, and was certainly NOT as difficult as this purported "grade eight exam".
posted by orange swan at 8:10 AM on September 25, 2002

The University of Chicago exam from 1931 takes me back to my college days. Man you're old!
posted by rschram at 8:22 AM on September 25, 2002

I'd say this test reflects a shocking emphasis on memorized "facts". For example, this is a typical question from the math section:

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

It's just a matter of memorizing some arcane units.
posted by originalname37 at 8:24 AM on September 25, 2002

This grade 8 exam isn't all that difficult if you break it down. It relies on some antiquated measurements for the arithmetic but the actual mechanics behind the math isn't difficult. I expect that a grade 8 student can calculate the volume of a container. Furthermore I would expect that a grade 8 student could figure out how many of a given volume would fit inside.

The history doesn't seem to different than the (long since forgotten) history I learned in 8th grade in Canada. How many people would pass their own eighth grade tests? Not many, most of us rely on a small fraction of what we've learned and the rest fades away.
posted by substrate at 8:24 AM on September 25, 2002

Given the Snopes convincing debunk of this test, I'm curious to know how it came to pass that people naturally accepted this as an 8th grade examination. Why 8th grade?

I can understand showing a suitably difficult test at a certain grade level as an example of how we've somehow "dumbed down" our system -- but I fail to see how people could naturally accept this as an 8th grade test without any substantiation for this.

Perhaps a more relevant statement regarding the "dumbing down" of America is the general public's easy acceptance of this document in this context.
posted by thanotopsis at 9:08 AM on September 25, 2002

I wonder how well those smug 1895 punks would have fared on this actual, modern eigth-grade test?

1.The best type of graph to use to show how some fixed quantity is broken down into parts is a______.
a. circle graph
b. line graph
c. scatter graph
d. bar graph

2.A term that means "salt former" is _____.
a. fluoride
b. ionic
c. halogen
d. allotrope

3.DNA and RNA are _____.
a. lipids
b. carbohydrates
c. proteins
d. nucleic acids

4.Fats and oils are examples of _______.
a. proteins
b. amino acids
c. lipids
d. carbohydrates

5.Different types of ____ make up many tissues of your body.
a. lipids
b. proteins
c. carbohydrates
d. nucleic acids

6.The ____ of a wave affects its intensity and amplitude.
a. direction of travel
b. energy
c. frequency
d. velocity

7.The primary pigment colors are_______.
a. yellow, blue, and green
b. magenta, cyan, and yellow
c. red, blue, and green
d. white and black

8._____ is the bending of waves around a barrier.
a. interference
b. diffraction
c. reflection
d. refraction

9.The color ____ is produced by blending the three primary pigments
a. cyan
b. red
c. white
d. black

10.A path created for a current that allows only one route for the current is called a _____
a. AC current
b. parallel circuit
c. series circuit
d. DC current

More here.

Point: Slamming today's kids because they don't know everything that was considered important a century ago is just as silly as slamming the kids of 1895 for not knowing what the modern 14 year-old has to master. I'd rather have my kid learning the fundamentals of DNA than memorizing the rules of Capitalization any day.
posted by Shadowkeeper at 9:39 AM on September 25, 2002

I smell a PLOT!


From the "1895" quiz: "Geography #5. Name and describe the following: ... Manitoba,..."

From the Cheat Sheet:
"Manitoba, a province in south central Canada and the easternmost of Canada's three Prairie provinces..."

Alberta and Saskatchewan, the other two prairie provinces, did not exist until 1905, ten years after this purported answer. At the "time" of this test, the Canadian west was composed of four or five administrative districts.

Clearly, this is evidence of the early use of Time Travel by GREEDY AMERICANS of the FUTURE with designs on the Canadian Heartland! Also, the Yukon is "a river in Alaska(!)" where "gold has been found", more evidence of time travel from the FUTURE (first strike in 1896, gold rush 1897-1898)! Another example of GREEDY AMERICANS pre-writing the history books! The Yukon territory will NEVER WILL EXIST! The Twentieth century was ONE BIG LIE!

In other news, my tinfoil hat keeps slipping down over my glasses. Does anyone have any suggestions?

posted by bonehead at 9:42 AM on September 25, 2002

Oh don't be mean, Thanotopsis. I was convinced by the arithmetic section. It was so practical and attuned to a farmer's life, with the land estimating, price of crops, bank loans. The test conjured up this nostalgic image of young strapping Kansan farm boys, unlikely to school beyond eighth grade, but well prepared to handle the plain but challenging task of running the family farm. Maybe I'm just daydreaming. But I was awfully disappointed to read the Snopes report.

Isn't the underlying point, though, that you could do more with less education back then? My grandfather only had a high school education, my great grandfather less than that. But they were both literate and had enough book-learnin' to do well for themselves out in the world. I don't think that's the case anymore.
posted by BinGregory at 9:43 AM on September 25, 2002

Final Examination, General Honors Course 110
June, 1931.
Take one hour to answer two of the following questions.
[i.e. 30 minutes each]
1. Discuss Homer, Herodotus, Thucydices, the Old Testament, Plutarch, and the New Testament, as histories, as biographies, and as literature.

That's five minutes on each work, one minute forty seconds on each aspect of each work.

7. Discuss the following authors: Erasmus, Montane, Rabelais, and Francis Bacon, in the light of the four R's: Romanticism, revolution, reformation, and renaissance.

Seven and a half minutes per author, just under two minutes per 'R' per author.

8. Compare the following in the expression of the scientific spirit: Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydices, Lucretius, Roger Bacon, Ockham, Leonardo da Vinci, and Francis Bacon.

You've got just over three minutes per author.

Difficult? Ha. Give anyone a year to study the works of Plato, Francis Bacon, the Old Testament etc. and they should be able to wax lyrical on them for a few minutes. Doesn't mean that what they'll write is any good.
posted by rory at 9:55 AM on September 25, 2002

bonehead: Yeah... there's a few anachronisms in the answer, such as the knowledge of galaxies and... um... the use of the world wide web: "It only took an hour and a half longer than the exam allotted time to answer all the exam questions and program it for the web."

That is, unless it's the world-wide telegraph web, which was in use from 1892-1904. (It never gained widespread use because it was only compliant with Lynx.)
posted by ptermit at 10:16 AM on September 25, 2002

BinGregory: You may have gone further with less education "back then" but part of the point of the Snopes article was that its a more complex world now and memorizing facts just wont cut it. Modern education is about wading through and judgeing the enormous amount of info thats thrown at you on a daily basis.
posted by Dr_Octavius at 10:28 AM on September 25, 2002

Well, damn! If you can't trust a genealogical society about a simple 8th grade test, how can you ever trust them with more weighty historical matters?

Good find, Joan. Presumably the authenticity of the college entry exams aren't in question yet, but maybe Snopes will have a go at them too after this thread.

Thanatopsis, to your point about gullibility, I think the average person would accept such a source as valid, particularly on a relatively trivial matter. It becomes a different kettle of fish, as Snopes correctly points out, when you use a document as evidence to prove that educational standards have declined.

Well I make no assertions about the decline of our standards - I just thought that a few tests from a bygone era would be fun and might provide a good springboard for a discussion about what we value as important in learning, now and in the past. But hey, information authenticity and credibility is a good topic too!

posted by madamjujujive at 10:31 AM on September 25, 2002

The 1930s University of Chicago quiz is not particularly troublesome, provided you went to the U of C. I graduated there about a decade ago and would not have been at all surprised to find any of those questions (or ones rather thematically similar) on a final for one of the Common Core classes. The school still makes a fetish out of primary texts and the idea that all students should read them, which is not an altogether bad thing.
posted by jscalzi at 10:45 AM on September 25, 2002

Shadowkeeper, good point about the more modern questions. Most 1895 students would not be able to answer too many of those.

However, notice that it is a multiple choice test. I haven't seen that in any old tests from Europe or the US. Multiple choice tests are, I think, responsible for some dumbing down in the modern US school system. You might be able to guess that 'proteins' make up most of the tissues in your body, but you can't bluff your way out of the question "What is climate?" without knowing something about it.
posted by Triplanetary at 11:27 AM on September 25, 2002

However, notice that it is a multiple choice test. I haven't seen that in any old tests from Europe or the US. Multiple choice tests are, I think, responsible for some dumbing down in the modern US school system.

It's true that multiple choice tests make it possible to guess a correct answer to any individual question. These tests can be graded to counteract this effect, however, either by providing for penlites for incorrect answers (and thereby discouraging guessing), or by taking the probability of correct guesses into account in the statistical analysis that determines the grades.

There's an aspect of randomness to the old-style test, too; a student may or may not be familiar with any given field of knowledge, and the appearance of a question with which that student is familiar is a matter of luck. With both types of tests, you can form a comprehensive picture of the students' knowledge only by asking many questions.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:20 PM on September 25, 2002

One more point: multiple choice questions make it easier to test very fine points of knowledge. The student needs to be able to distinguish between subtle differences in the choices. It's much easier to BS your way past details in tests with free-form answers (and, similarly, much more difficult for the test-writer to clearly communicate exactly which details should be present in the answer).
posted by mr_roboto at 12:24 PM on September 25, 2002

bonehead (heh), Manitoba joined confederation in 1870. I appreciate the attempt to use us to debunk the test, but I would think a fellow Canadian would do the research? Or are you Canadian?!
posted by Firefly at 12:47 PM on September 25, 2002

I was rather puzzled by the question about "the Fundamental Rules of Arithmetic." Which rules are they referring to? The Euclidean axioms? The Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic (i.e. every natural number has a unique prime factorization)? The Peano postulates? I did a search on the web for "fundamental rules of arithmetic" and found hundreds of copies of this test, and not much else.

I also checked the link to the cheat sheet. Oh. that's what it means. The things that mathematicians (such as myself) call the arithmetic operations.

The modern "rules of arithmetic" are:
P1. 0 is a number.
P2. The successor of any number is a number.
P3. No two numbers have the same successor.
P4. 0 is not the successor of any number.
P5. If P is a property such that: a) 0 has the property P and b) whenever n has the property P, then the successor of n also has the property P, so every number has the property P. In other words, if P is a set of numbers where 0 is an element of P, and where the successor of n is in P whenever n is in P, then P is the set of all nonnegative integers.

The only operation in arithmetic that is truly "fundamental" is successorship operation (i.e. counting to the next higher number). Addition and multiplication aren't fundamental -- these are built out of the successorship operation. Subtraction and division aren't fundamental -- they're built out of addition and multiplication.

BTW, the following is a trick question, which the cheat-sheet answerer got tripped up by:
5. Find cost of 6720 lbs. coal at $6.00 per ton.
One ton equals 2000 lbs, therefore 6720 ÷ 2000 X $6 = $20.16
Coal was once measured in long tons, which are 2240 pounds. This means that 6720 pounds of coal are 3 (long) tons, which cost $18
posted by CrunchyFrog at 12:54 PM on September 25, 2002

Firefly, you should re-read Bonehead's post.
posted by Red58 at 2:19 PM on September 25, 2002

Coal was once measured in long tons, which are 2240 pounds. This means that 6720 pounds of coal are 3 (long) tons, which cost $18

The link says that wholesale coal is measured in long tons; as a rule, one would have to buy in huge quantities to get coal from a wholesaler, so the 6720 lbs in question could well come from a retailer, using the standard 2000# ton.
posted by Oriole Adams at 2:22 PM on September 25, 2002

firefly: clearly your keen powers of observation have been fogged by The Time-traveing Kansonian MENACE! TRUE, Manitoba was part of Our Great Dominion in 1889, but Alberta and Saskatchewan were then mere territories of Vast Prairie! QE2!
posted by bonehead at 4:51 PM on September 25, 2002

The reason I'm scared: My farm-boy heritage shows through in that I know how many bushels (on average) are in a cubic foot and could do the land cost calculation without having to reference a table. *shudder*
posted by nathan_teske at 10:11 PM on September 25, 2002

Red58, you’re right. How embarrassing.
posted by Firefly at 9:07 AM on September 26, 2002

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