What an “8th Grade Education” Used to Mean

The following, including the illustration, was sent to me this morning by my father.  I did not write it, and I can’t vouch for its veracity, but if it’s authentic, it’s pretty stunning.  If anyone can verify the original source, please let me know!

What it Meant to Have an 8th Grade Education in 1895

Remember when grandparents and great-grandparents stated that they only had an 8th grade education? Well, check this out. Could any of us have passed the 8th grade in 1895?
This is the eighth-grade final exam from 1895 in Salina , Kansas , USA … It was taken from the original document on file at the Smokey Valley Genealogical Society and Library in Salina , and reprinted by the Salina Journal.

8th Grade Final Exam: Salina , KS – 1895

Grammar (Time, one hour)
1. Give nine rules for the use of capital letters
2. Name the parts of speech and define those that have no modifications.
3. Define verse, stanza and paragraph
4. What are the principal parts of a verb? Give principal parts of ‘lie,”play,’ and ‘run’
5. Define case; illustrate each case.
6 What is punctuation? Give rules for principal marks of punctuation.
7 – 10. Write a composition of about 150 words and show therein that you understand the practical use of the rules of grammar.

Arithmetic (Time,1 hour 15 minutes)
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 3,942 lbs., what is it worth at 50cts/bushel, deducting 1,050 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 the cost of 6,720 lbs. Coal at $6.00 per ton.
6. Find the interest of $512.60 for 8 months and 18 days at 7 percent.
7. What is the cost of 40 boards 12 inches wide and 16 ft.. Long at $20 per metre?
8. Find bank discount on $300 for 90 days (no grace) at 10 percent.
9. What is the cost of a square farm at $15 per acre, the distance of which is 640 rods?
10.. Write a Bank Check, a Promissory Note, and a Receipt

U.S. History (Time, 45 minutes)
1 Give the epochs into which U.S. History is divided
2. Give an account of the discovery of America by Columbus
3. Relate the causes and results of the Revolutionary War.
4. Show the territorial growth of the United States
5. Tell what you can of the history of Kansas
6. Describe three of the most prominent battles of the Rebellion.
7. Who were the following: Morse, Whitney, Fulton , Bell , Lincoln , Penn, and Howe?
8. Name events connected with the following dates: 1607, 1620, 1800, 1849, 1865.

Orthography (Time, one hour)
1. What is meant by the following: alphabet, phonetic, orthography, etymology, syllabication
2.. What are elementary sounds? How classified?
3. What are the following, and give examples of each: trigraph, subvocals, diphthong, cognate letters, linguals
4.. Give four substitutes for caret ‘u.’
5. Give two rules for spelling words with final ‘e.’ Name two exceptions under each rule.
6. Give two uses of silent letters in spelling. Illustrate each.
7. Define the following prefixes and use in connection with a word: bi, dis-mis, pre, semi, post, non, inter, mono, sup.
8. Mark diacritically and divide into syllables the following, and name the sign that indicates the sound: card, ball, mercy, sir, odd, cell, rise, blood, fare, last.
9. Use the following correctly in sentences: cite, site, sight, fane, fain, feign, vane , vain, vein, raze, raise, rays.
10. Write 10 words frequently mispronounced and indicate pronunciation by use of diacritical marks
and by syllabication.

Geography (Time, one hour)
1 What is climate? Upon what does climate depend?
2. How do you account for the extremes of climate in Kansas ?
3. Of what use are rivers? Of what use is the ocean?
4. Describe the mountains of North America
5. Name and describe the following: Monrovia , Odessa , Denver , Manitoba , Hecla , Yukon , St. Helena, Juan Fernandez, Aspinwall and Orinoco
6. Name and locate the principal trade centers of the U.S. Name all the republics of Europe and give the capital of each.
8. Why is the Atlantic Coast colder than the Pacific in the same latitude?
9. Describe the process by which the water of the ocean returns to the sources of rivers..
10. Describe the movements of the earth. Give the inclination of the earth.

Notice that the exam took FIVE HOURS to complete.

Gives the saying ‘he only had an 8th grade education’ a whole new meaning, doesn’t it?!



Rob St. Amant, over at my OpenSalon blog, left a comment with a link to the site truthorfiction.com, in which this (apparently real) exam is evaluated and some suggestions are made as to its true origins and purpose (maybe not meant for 8th graders after all.)  And thus the power of the blogosphere to debunk and affirm asserts itself…


23 responses

  1. I’d have trouble passing it with no advance warning (except maybe US History) but with a couple of prep sessions, I could do most of the rest. For example, I cannot “fathom” what a rod or a bushel are worth, without reviewing a weights and measures table, and never having been to Kansas, Dorothy, I would need to cram on Kansas topography. No, I never believed that a 13-year-old kid had to pass this.
    When I have time I can look up entrance requirements for McGill in the 1920s. I seem to recall a stiff dose of Latin.

    • Michael:
      I have to say, I would find even some of the grammar and orthography questions difficult. I know this speaks very poorly of me.

  2. “A wagon box is 2 ft. Deep, 10 feet long, and 3 ft. Wide. How many bushels of wheat will it hold?”

    I’m assuming the dimensions of a single bushel of wheat was common knowledge in 1895?

  3. I think this is still pretty much exactly what one learns by 8th grade. At least I did, at my school. I don’t think I could pass it now, but I couldn’t pass many tests that I aced when I was prepared for them! It is a little intense to take it all in one shot, but you could easily have 5 one hour exams at the end of your 8th grade year. I’m a little tired of this “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader” thing, just remember that they just learned all this stuff, of course you don’t 10..20..30… years later.

    • Jill:

      If you knew the answers to most of these questions by eighth grade, I am in awe. It’s true that I knew tonnes of things in eighth grade that I’ve forgotten now, but I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have answered most of the orthography questions (I can’t answer some of them even now, and I’m an English teacher), and I don’t think I’d have been able to pass the Canadian equivalent of the U.S. history section.

      More to the point, I feel absolutely certain that most of my college students would not have been able to answer the vast majority of these questions when they were in eighth grade a few years ago; most have no idea that there are “rules for the use of capital letters,” and they are incapable of demonstrating “that [they] understand the practical use of the rules of grammar” in any context.

  4. I don’t think we even need to go as far back as the 1890’s to see what a change has occurred in our elementary and HS curricula and their level of challenge. My office mate was about 20 years my senior and his description of what he learned in elementary and high school amazed me. Interestingly, when I spoke with some of my top students who went to the same HS as I, the gap between my education and theirs disturbed not only me, but them! Their complaint was that their teachers had to spend so much time dealing with discipline problems, and inattentiveness, that they could never give the attention needed to the subject or to the brighter students to satisfy those students. No doubt, not every school has this problem, but my HS was in the top 3 in Quebec when I attended, so it’s a sad statement about how far down it has fallen.

    • Maia:

      I was struck by something similar a few years ago when I asked some of my students what they knew about Greek mythology. Their answer: nothing.

      These were hardworking students who were doing well in my class; it was unlikely that they had learned about Greek mythology but had forgotten all their knowledge. “You didn’t read or discuss any Greek myths in high school?” I asked. “No,” one replied. “Maybe people who went to Greek school did…”

      When I was in junior high school, the study of Greek mythology was a major part of the literature curriculum. And we wonder why so many of our students find contemporary literature impenetrable…if they don’t know who Persephone or Poseidon are, they don’t have the knowledge to grasp some of the most basic references…

  5. I was struck by the signs of the times…what they used for their examples in the math section (wheat, coal). I hope to be a math teacher some day, and I hope to have really relevant/funny examples. The math is the same either way, right?

  6. The amazing part is that most of this stuff is essentially unimportant information. If it was important most of us would know it. Yet, over 115 years later we are STILL asking students to answer these “types” of questions without questioning the importance of having students memorize this kind of information in the first place.

    Interesting but equally disheartening. We still have not learned that this the measure of learning cannot be tested by trivia (or trivial knowledge) alone.

    • Penned by someone other than me on a different webite

      “Note – It should be pointed out that snopes.com, though admitting the test is genuine, calls this matter “false,” passing a value judgment instead of sticking to the veracity or incredulity of a matter. In a rather lengthy, overblown defense of today’s educational system, snopes goes out of its way to render this material essentially meaningless, even casting doubt on the ‘dumbing down of America.’ Sorry, snopes, but that dog won’t hunt! There was a time when someone with a mere high school education could determine the meanings of words they’d never heard simply because they were schooled in latin, and could ascertain the meaning from the latin root. Snopes would have us believe knowing such drivel is pointless and has no value.”

  7. I seem to recall some of these things being taught in school when I was there (not so much the american history), but, for the life of me, I can hardly remember the details.
    I think many of these answers are in our brain and used when needed, we just can’t name the particular rule that is applied. What do you think?

  8. Good grief. I sincerely hope that none of the respondents above (with the exception of Brian) are teachers. The world back then was a different place, with different challenges. While the content of this test may have addressed some of the needs of that time and the select students who were afforded a place in the classroom, none of it is relevant today.

    The first question my grade 6 students would ask is “Why would we need to know any of this?” After I explained to them that this was purely a mental exercise for their amusement, they would get busy researching and learning the material. Given a week to study this material (which would be totally irresponsible of me), they would have it mastered. Those students with special needs (who would have never been allowed in 19th Century classrooms, would likely do a lot better on the material than the students the test was intended for.

    Perhaps the reason why grade 6 students have many, many more important things to study is because their parents’ education did little to address the emerging geopolitical, economic, and environmental mess that contemporary students now have to deal with. Today’s students have educational technologies that make much of their parents’ curriculum redundant. Instead, today’s students are (one would hope) being prepared to deal with their parents’ national debt, dependency on fossil fuels, global warming, failing and changing values, the anomosity of other nations, drug wars, and oh yes, the fact that knowledge will be doubling many, many times before they complete their formal education.

    Today, the materials in many first year university courses are out of date by the time the student reaches fourth year. Knowledge is now a function of use, not memorization. If none of this makes any sense to you, that’s OK, It’s also likely that you feel either unable and/or unmotivated to be anything more than a visitor to the 21st Century. This is not the case with my students. They are actively involved in learning skills that their ancestors could never have imagined, and in changing their world for the better.

    I have to end here, as I’m in the middle of preparing a virtual world where my students will be creating a living museum. People will be able to visit the Golden Crescent, the Nile, Greek Islands, the Seven Hills of Rome, a town built by crusaders in the Middle East. There, my students will have prepared interactive sites that will teach visitors about the history, culture, technologies and literature of ancient civilizations. The big idea? Learning from history so we don’t repeat the mistakes. I guess we can only hope that their grammar checker doesn’t miss a capital letter.

    Gord Holden
    Intermediate Teacher,
    BC, Canada

  9. Wow! you’d better believe these students were taught “to the test”

    While I agree that comparing this test to current student’s or adults knowledge is irrelevant, for all the reasons mentioned, I find it sad that we don’t teach/learn grammar as thoroughly as it was done in the past (of course not everyone “learned” it).

    I was always mystified by the account in the “Little House on the Prairie” series where the teacher exam required “parsing” a sentence. Even now with a BA, I have no clue how to do that or what it means (or if it really matters).

    However, I do think correct spelling could and should be taught and explained better, and appreciated more in general. We think of English as a language with no rules and therefore “too hard”, but yet, from talking with friends working in special education, and from working on puzzles such as “cross codes / code crackers”, am realizing that the English language is full of patterns and “rules” that, if shared/taught, would help all those struggling spellers.

    The problem with poor spelling and grammar is that it makes for poor communication and can lead to misunderstanding. I find it takes me longer to read something when it is unclear because of incorrect spelling (especially use of a homonym), comma use, or apostrophe placement, and I have to figure out what is actually meant.

    This problem seems to be getting worse all the time – I get emails from a college student who is “smart” enough to have started college before 18 yrs old by finishing home schooling early, but is continually using “their” for “there”, “apart” for “a part”, etc. etc…. But at least he can read…

    And yes I think it would be great if grade 8 or high school students knew half of the grammar for this test, or if teachers knew half of the linguistic stuff (especially primary teachers).

  10. Goodness!! What is all this stuff?! I don’t even remember learning half of this in the eighth grade. See, I was fin with the grammar portion. Then I got to the arithmetic part (which was never really my strong suit) and– I just didn’t know anything.

    Whoever said “I only have and 8th grade education” back in 1895 was VERY modest.

  11. Oh, this was very interesting and fun to read. I graduated from a boarding school founded in the late 1800s and we have several examples of exams just like this.The school still has disciplinary records of some of the students and those are quite as interesting to read. Most of us would be in trouble all the time if held to the same requirements.

  12. Speaking as a teacher born in 1955 and who graduated from high school in 1973, yes, I could easily pass most of the questions on this test. However, I don’t have a clue about the verb and case grammar questions! I don’t know where Hecla is, and I don’t know substitutes for caret u (at least I know what that IS, but only because I now live in a French-speaking country!)

    Anyway, generally speaking, I see that this exam covered a fair range of things considered useful skills and knowledge at the time.

    Regarding people’s comments on bushels, didn’t anyone else ever rake up a “bushel” of leaves into a “bushel” basket? –Maybe this has fallen by the wayside for those under 30 who may have raked leaves into large black plastic bags instead of bushel baskets! (A bushel is about 8 dry gallons–let’s hope readers still know how big a gallon is….)

    Lynne Diligent, Dilemmas of an Expat Tutor

  13. OK, later today, I was reading Time Magazine, and in an article entitiled, “America’s Hottest Investment: Farmland,” I came across the following paragraph which would indicate that most readers know/should know what “bushels” are:

    “So is farmland overvalued now? Here’s the math: In Nebraska where I was, the farmland prices have reached about $6,000 an acre. Based on the current price of fertilizer and seeds, the farmers told me, it costs about $4 to grow a bushel of corn. That means at current prices, each bushel produces a profit of $3.50. Farmers these days get about 200 bushels per acre of corn. That means a $6,000 investment produces an annual income of about $650, which is an income yield of 10.5%. That’s more than double the earnings yield of the S&P 500. And it is three times the yield you would get with 10-year Treasury notes. So by that measure farmland doesn’t look overvalued.”

    Anyone who doesn’t know what a bushel is will certainly have trouble understanding this article. Perhaps the real problem is that being away from farms and rural life, most students in cities today don’t use bushels in their daily lives; therefore, they don’t know what it is.

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