The NYT has this little essay analyzing an 8th grade graduation test from 1895 which many astute combox readers snope out. (Has the verb form of ‘snopes’ become current yet? It’s about time it did! We’d have to drop the awkward final ‘s’ – to snope, snoping, I snoped it. Works for me. Maybe I should Google it first.)
Many correctly point out that this test is impossibly hard off the top of one’s head chiefly because it requires knowledge of now-obscure measures – bushels, rods – and tests for stuff we no longer consider important. We could pass it, it is asserted, if these were the sort of items we’d just spent the last few years studying.
Be that as it may, here’s a couple points that seem largely missed:
– Kansas, from where the test originated, was about 80%+ farmers in 1895, and a huge majority of their kids would have been educated in one-room schools.
– Recall that the teacher in a one-room school taught at the pleasure of the farmers of that ‘section’ – the construction and staffing of the schoolhouse was up to the farm families within each section wherein the school resided. So, the test reflected to some degree what farmers thought was important. Thus, bushels and rods and writing a check and a receipt.
– Students in Kansas in 1895 were likely to spend a small fraction of the time students today spend at school and doing homework. So, if in fact time in school and homework correlate positively in any way to learning, we should expect modern students to be much superior to the farm kids in 1895.
Given the above, this 1895 test raises for me a bunch of different questions.
– Given that we spend vastly more time and money on schools today than in 1895, shouldn’t we expect vastly better results? Are we getting them?
– What are today the areas of expertise that correspond to farming? In other words, if a kid in 1895 needed to know conversion factors for bushels and rods to get along in his world, what do kids today need to know? Are we testing for it? Are we even talking about it?
Finally, I’ve looked at today’s tests, specifically the Star tests from California. They, too, require instant regurgitation of obscure knowledge. The difference is that some 80% of Kansas 8th graders in 1895 actually needed the knowledge we consider obscure to get by in their normal daily lives, while I’d bet maybe 5% of the obscure stuff we test for today has any relationship to the lives those kids will be living once they get out of school.