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Are you smarter than an 8th grader – from 1895?

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March 05, 2013 07:46 pm

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For years, a document purported to be an eight grade exam from near the turn of the 20th century has floated around the Internet and been delivered to inboxes everywhere. The exam, which was uncovered by the Smoky Valley Genealogical Society in Salina, Kansas, recently made its way to our inboxes here at the Alliance. There has been some debate about the veracity of this exam and whether it was intended to be administered to students or teachers. However, the genealogical society maintains that the examination was given, if only for one year, and has not released the names and records of the students who took it due to privacy concerns. Giving the Society the benefit of the doubt and assuming that this was indeed administered to 8th graders, the exam offers a rare glimpse into what students in that era were expected to know and be able to do.

The test was probably significant. Eighth grade was the end of schooling for a lot of young people in the late nineteenth century. Although data are scarce, Census figures show that, in 1910, the median number of years of schooling for adults was eight, meaning that half of all adults never made it to the eighth grade. Only 13 percent of adults in 1910 graduated from high school. So an eighth grade test represented a passage into adulthood, or at least into the workforce, for many young people.

In many ways, the test appears quite challenging. It took five hours to complete and included a total of forty-eight questions in five subjects: grammar, arithmetic, U.S. history, orthography, and geography. None of the questions were multiple-choice, although some probably required short answers (“Name all the republics of Europe and give the capitals of each.”). Some required short essays (“Relate the causes and results of the Revolutionary War.”).

Yet in other ways, the test shows that students now are expected to know more than their counterparts from the 1890s. The Common Core State Standards, which forty-six states and the District of Columbia have adopted, set higher expectations for eighth graders than the 1895 test, at least in the areas of English language arts and mathematics.

For one thing, the Common Core Standards in many cases expect students to demonstrate knowledge and skills that are included on the 1895 eighth grade test much earlier than eighth grade. For example, the test asks students to define punctuation and write a 150-word composition to show that students understand the rules of grammar. In the Common Core State Standards, students in sixth grade are expected to “Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.”

Likewise, the 1895 test includes arithmetic questions that the Common Core State Standards expect students to master well before eighth grade. One question, asking about a “bank discount” of 10 percent, involves percentages, which the Common Core Standards require in seventh grade. Other questions, such as rate problems (for example, “Find the cost of 6,720 lbs. coal at $6.00 per ton.”) involve skills the Common Core expects students to learn as early as fourth grade (although the 1895 test adds the challenge of requiring students to convert pounds to tons).

In addition, the Common Core State Standards expect students to do a lot more. By eighth grade, students are well past whole number arithmetic; they are expected to solve problems involving rational numbers, to use algebra to solve problems, and to understand statistics and probability.

And in English language arts, students from the earliest grades are expected to be able to read increasingly complex texts, to use evidence from texts to make arguments in writing and orally, and to write extensively.

The increased expectations should not be surprising. The world is a lot more complex than it was 118 years ago, and students should be able to know and do more to succeed. At the same time, there are some things students learned in 1895 that might not be so relevant anymore; few schools teach orthography these days.

But a comparison between the 1895 test and the Common Core State Standards should allay any fears that education has declined over time or that students today are not as capable as they once were. Students are learning more, and schools are expecting more. That’s worth celebrating.

Robert Rothman is a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education and the author of Something in Common: The Common Core Standards and the Next Chapter in American Education. 

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