Could a middle-schooler today survive a 1912 curriculum? If you’ve seen the eighth grade test from Bullitt County, Kentucky, you might say, “No Way!” The test is great fun – and tough. If you haven’t seen it, why not give it a go?

Were things different back then or what? That math problem about walking 2 ¼ miles taking steps that measured 2 1/3 feet? Word parsing and diagramming sentences? Gad. I can barely get a comma, right. Maybe our eighth graders need a reality check.

In fact, I had my doubts about what 8th graders in 1912 could do, too. I kinda even doubted that the test was real.

So I wrote to Bullitt County Historical Society and asked how they authenticated the test. I was curious if they had any tests that students had completed or data on how many students took the test. Volunteer Dave Strange promptly replied. The test was mixed in with some documents they found from the 1930s and verified by a very sharp senior citizen who remembers her mother had a similar version from 1925. Period newspapers announcing the test exist.

The test appears to be an entrance test to high school, the attendance of which in 1912 was fairly rare. Bullitt County had an entire population of around 9000, and in an admittedly wild guess, Dave estimates that no more than 50 would have taken the test, maybe even half that number. They don’t have data on how many kids passed the test. Nor do they have any tests that students actually completed.*

A Digression from Testing

While researching the 1912 test I found a report titled: Kentucky Historic Schools Survey: An Examination of the History and Condition of Kentucky’s Older School Buildings. An education reform movement was underway in Kentucky at the time. Few students went beyond 8th grade and many counties had no public high schools. Students in those counties had to attend private academies or travel elsewhere to attend. In 1908 the Kentucky legislature mandated that by 1910 all counties had to have built a high school. The legislature also mandated high school attendance, though many families ignored the law.

Several counties refused to construct high schools for African American students, arguing there were too few Black children. Instead, rather than integrating the schools, they negotiated agreements by which African American students could attend segregated high schools in neighboring counties.

Back to the Future

I’m going to assume that education in Kentucky in 1912 was typical enough of U.S. education to make some comparisons to what we expect from our kids and schools today.

The intent of the No Child Left Behind Act, regardless of its application, is that public schools will provide all students with a year’s worth of learning after a year’s worth of schooling. That progress is measured by standardized tests that every kid takes.

Additionally, many states have comprehensive exams that students must pass in order to graduate high school. What are coming soon to almost every state will be the Common Core assessments. Students will have to pass those tests to get beyond lower grades, not just graduate high school.

Smarter Balanced is one vendor of Common Core assessments. It took me over an hour to complete the 50 questions on their 8th grade math practice test. When I was done, I knew I had taken a TEST! See for yourself.

How’d you do on:  “A sphere and a cone have the same volume. Each figure has a radius of 3 inches. What is the height of the cone?”

The Partnership for Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) is the other vendor of Common Core assessments.  My friend and fellow CTQ Teacherpreneur Rob Kriete sent me this sample from PARRC’s seventh grade language arts test:

You have read three texts describing Amelia Earhart. All three texts include the claim that Earhart was a brave, courageous person. Consider the argument each author uses to demonstrate Earhart’s bravery. Write an essay that analyzes the strength of the arguments about Earhart’s bravery in at least two of the texts while using textual evidence to support your ideas.

Additionally, while in 1912 students had to spell correctly and diagram sentences, today’s eighth graders are expected to:

Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.


Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.

Place your bets

I’m not sure what statistically valid conclusions I can draw from all this, other than that I discovered I love reading about the history of education – and maybe that’s not even statistically valid.

But I’ll make this claim. If you have to bet on how much basic academic material our kids know these days – compared to their 1912 cohort – put you money on today’s kids.

* I thank Dave Strange for his help in this post and hope we get to meet some day. The Bullitt County Historical Society updated their information about the test this week. Dave gave me permission to share our conversation.

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