1912 Eighth Grade Exam Ignites Debate Over Modern Education

Are you smarter than an 8th grader? What about an 8th grader from 1912? A 1912 Eight grade exam that was posted online by the Bullitt County Genealogical Society has sparked a debate about the modern education system.

Bullitt County writes: “This copy of the Eighth Grade Exam for Bullitt County Schools in 1912 was donated to the museum. We thought you might like to see what the test looked like a hundred years ago. Obviously it tested some things that were more relevant at that time than now, and it should not be used to compare student knowledge then and now.”

(You can see several questions from the exam here.)

The Smithsonian Magazine uses the 1912 exam to prove that today’s generation would probably fail the exam. The website doesn’t use any examples of modern test scores but it does take a look at the wide range of topics covered by the 100-year-old test.

Do you know where Montenegro is? How about the average size of the human liver? How much do you know about patent rights? Can you describe the battle of Quebec?

The majority of 8th graders today, and probably most adults, wouldn’t do very well on the 1912 eighth grade exam from Bullitt County but that doesn’t mean that this generation is less educated.

Here’s a video showing people on the street trying to answer some of the questions on the 1912 8th grade exam.

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Will Grant and Merryn McKinnon write at The Conversation that these types of tests are frequently used to show that a generation is getting smarter or dumber but that the argument is really invalid.

The researchers write: “We pretend that factoids are a useful proxy for scientific literacy, and in turn that scientific literacy is a useful proxy for good citizenship. But there’s simply no evidence this is true.”

Others note that the 1912 exam doesn’t feature many analytical questions and instead asks the students to recite facts and numbers. Modern education has started to steer away from memorization and the 1912 exam isn’t exactly relevant to today’s testing strategies. Still, some argue that memorization is key to analytical thinking.

One commentator writes on the Daily Mail: “(Learning geography) 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. 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.”

Do you think you’re smarter than an 8th grader? What about one from 1912? You can take the 1912 eighth grade exam here.