College Guide


January 09, 2013 10:00 AM 100 Years Ago in Public Education

By Daniel Luzer

How has American education changed in the last 100 years?

While critics often debate the nature of rigor in schools (“they demanded more back when I was in high school”) check out the questions on this examination, required for graduation from eighth grade in Kentucky schools back in 1912:


Ok, come on now. No Googling. Name the commander of the last battle of the War of 1812. [Examination via]

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • Richard Hershberger on January 09, 2013 1:28 PM:

    "Ok, come on now. No Googling. Name the commander of the last battle of the War of 1812."

    Actually, that is pretty easy: Andrew Jackson. Who commanded the British troops would be a tough one, but I strongly suspect that this wasn't the intent.

    Furthermore, Andrew Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans loomed much larger in the popular consciousness a century ago. I suspect that this would have been a very easy question.

    The last battle of the Civil War is is trickier in that we have to guess whether the test maker intended the obvious answer of Grant and Lee at Appomattox Courthouse, or the obscure but more correct answer of Palmito Ranch, and whoever commanded there. (Yes, I did have to look that one up.) I would lay money that they intended the obvious rather than the correct answer.

    For that matter, I cannot help but suspect that for the French and Indian War they have in mind the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, if only because any other answer would be improbably obscure.

    What strikes me about the test is how easy most of the math questions are (and how algebra and geometry get classified as 'arithmetic').

  • Anonymous on January 09, 2013 3:01 PM:

    Sir Edward Michael Pakenham was the British commander of the Battle of New Orleans. (But yea, I had to look that up.)

  • Keith M Ellis on January 09, 2013 6:43 PM:

    Nationwide, about one-third of the children in the US around 1912 did not complete eighth grade; less than that in the South, assuming that includes Kentucky. This was also the era in which junior highs were invented — to serve those children who continued past primary school only to age 14.

    These were a high-achieving portion of all students, relative to today. Furthermore, while contemporary intuition expects that students would be able to answer at least half of all these questions on such a test, past conventions varied. Finally, as is the case when comparing American students to European students to Asian students with regard to apparently difficult examinations, this is often a comparison of unlike things — it's not clear that students weren't specifically and exclusively prepped for this exact set of questions.

    It's entirely possible that a student in 1912 who was able to answer most of the questions correctly would be unable to pass a simple contemporary eighth-grade test, though it appears to us to be absurdly easy in comparison. Cultural context is everything.

  • Keith M Ellis on January 09, 2013 6:45 PM:

    By "less than that" I, of course, meant "more than that". Sigh. Stupid tricksy Englishes.

  • Walker on January 09, 2013 9:42 PM:

    To be fair, the arithmetic questions appear to be 6th grade mathematics in modern curricula.

  • C. Tolliver on January 10, 2013 11:29 AM:

    What does the liver secrate? What does secrate mean?

    They mean name the commanders on both sides of those battles.

    To bring it closer to home:
    Name the commanders of the last battle of Desert Storm and the battle of Grenada.

  • low-tech cyclist on January 10, 2013 12:41 PM:

    Richard - I see a problem or two where algebra could be used, but isn't needed. (E.g. #7.) And the only geometry problem is #8, but if you've introduced the Pythagorean 3-4-5 triangle, all it really is is multiplication by 10.

    Tthe test writer clearly blew #9. That was clearly meant to simplify nicely, which it would if the steps were 2-1/4 feet in length (2 feet 3 inches) instead of 2 feet 4 inches. There would be 5,280 steps of 2.25 feet in 2.25 miles, just as there would be 5,280 steps of 1 foot in 1 mile.

    But as the problem is written, there are 5091.428571... steps of 2 feet 4 inches in 2.25 miles. Oopsie.