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High Stakes: Great-Grandma knew all about school tests



Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Sunday, 24 Jun 2001


My father's mother had an eighth-grade education. She married a man, my grandfather, who
was a college graduate, and from every indication throughout their short life together, (he died quite young of typhoid fever) she was an intellectual match for him in the management of everyday affairs.

But that was before the turn of the 20th century when, evidence seems to support, the public school system that taught both of them was far superior in many ways to the current one, with all its technical bells and whistles, and expensive and extensively educated faculties.

The reason was obvious. Because of economic conditions that required many young men and women to cut short their formal schooling and head for the fields or into the mills and factories of the industrial revolution, it was imperative that those public school years were meaningful.

As the White House and Congress struggle with a thousand different schemes, from vouchers, to mandatory testing, to throwing more and more billions at the problem of "saving" the beleaguered public system it seems appropriate to review the kind of education that even one-room schools of America were offering so long ago. In so doing, it also seems in order to note that New York City's fourth-grade teachers are protesting mandatory testing they contend puts too much pressure on them and their pupils.

Pressure? Well, measure their arguments against the following, provided by the Smokey Valley Genealogical Society and Library in Salina, Kan., and the Salina Journal.

It is the year 1895, and in Salina, the eighth-graders are about to take their graduation examination. There are five subjects -- grammar, arithmetic, history, geography and orthography (spelling), each with 10 questions. The five-hour test begins with grammar and the pupils have one hour to complete that component. Here is a sampling of the questions:

The next subject tested is arithmetic and the time limit was one and a quarter hours. Hold onto your hats.

Having completed that successfully, we now turn to history. Our eighth-graders are obviously prepared so are given only 45 minutes.

For geography, students are being given one hour to answer 10 questions like these.

Now we come to orthography. The time allotted is one hour.

Would anyone like to take this exam for credit? Remember before saying "yes" that a lot of questions were left out for space reasons.

The object of this exercise was only to reveal what many of us have known for some time. The dumbing down of American public education over the past 100 years has been substantial, particularly in the last 50 years.

When great-grandma says she only had an eighth grade education, don't smirk.

Dan K Thomasson is former editor of Scripps Howard News Service.

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