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Posted at 9:30 AM ET, 11/23/2010

Take this 1931 8th grade test (you will probably flunk)

By Valerie Strauss

(Note: The link to the test has been fixed.)

The following exam was given in 1931 by the West Virginia Department of Education to students seeking graduation from eighth grade. For many students, that was the last year of formal schooling. The exam was sent to me by John N. Beall of Wilmington, N.C., who received it from his father, the teacher who administered the test in a one-room school in Gilmer County, W.Va.

Beall sent this to me and wrote:
"When I have shown the exam to people, including teachers, I am invariably asked if the teacher 'taught to the test.' The answer is 'no.' The students were given standard textbooks from which they studied as students do today. Two or three days before the day of the exam the school received a package from the state with directions not to open it until the day of the exam. In 1931, during the Great Depression, with work so difficult to come by, it is doubtful that any teacher would have risked the loss of their position by revealing the contents before exam day. My father certainly would not.

"The scope and depth of the exam speaks for itself. What is important to understand is that the students came from families that were very challenged financially, especially during the depression years. They lived on small family farms, and, just to make ends meet, every member of the family had to work on the farm. Each child had chores to do before and after school, and, as there were very few automobiles in that area, they walked to and from school each day, some of them walking several miles each way. At night after chores there was homework and then to bed. These young people were part of the 'Great Generation' that fought and died for freedom. Those who survived the war went on to build this great nation.

"You might want to take the exam yourself. I found it to be challenging."


Click above for a full view of the test (PDF).

By Valerie Strauss  | November 23, 2010; 9:30 AM ET
Categories:  History, Quizzes, Standardized Tests  | Tags:  education history, exams, great depression, great generation, standardized tests, testing, the depression, west virginia  
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When I click on test a message comes up that the page cannot be found.

Posted by: educationlover54 | November 21, 2010 2:49 PM | Report abuse

There is a general feeling that the level of education from one generation to the next has been in decline for many years. It is difficult to argue against - certainly when I look at exams which were set for my parents for example, I know there is a significant discrepancy between what I knew at a certain age and what they were expected to know at the same age. I was educated in the British grammar school system, and I think the high standards of education in Britain (and indeed the US) of older generations is what made our countries great, helping produce some of the most forward thinking individuals of our time.

The fact that the exam in the article was given to students of a one room school is somewhat irrelevant - it was a standard exam for all school children (the article doesn't indicate how many in the school actually graduated from the eighth grade, but we shall assume some, if not most); however, it does show the depth of education that these generally poorer, supposedly "less intelligent" children were meant to possess. They were certainly generally more worldly than any of those of today. Having just finished editing a book for local Ottawa author Joy Forbes entitled "Perseverance, Pranks and Pride - Tales of the One Room Schoolhouse" (, I am astounded at the hardships these rurally educated families faced. Certainly the kids of today's modern education system with their "fail free" environment, coupled with the general decline of the community and the emerging egocentric attitudes, would not be able to cope given the same set of circumstances.

The way things are going, it may be some time until our nations are truly great again. Don't hold your breath.

Posted by: willh73 | November 21, 2010 3:42 PM | Report abuse

The link isn't working.

Posted by: UrbanDweller | November 21, 2010 8:19 PM | Report abuse

Here's the correct link:

Posted by: HilaryA | November 21, 2010 9:38 PM | Report abuse

It's interesting - as the parent of both an 8th grader and 9th grader this year I have a relatively good feel for the comparison to current instruction.

It's easy to forget that this specific material is what the students had been studying - I would suggest that if I took *any* of the tests my children have taken this year and posted them here most adults would find them challenging.

Moreover, look at what *isn't* on the test that we would assume students in 8th grade would have covered. The math is very elementary - it includes no geometry, very little algebra, no statistics or probability. The science is even more sparse - other than 'hygiene', there is no coverage of basic biology, chemistry or physics.

Posted by: FYIColumbiaMD | November 22, 2010 7:55 AM | Report abuse

Also, much of the history that we now might find difficult was recent history in 1931. Nothing on the list happened more than 30 years prior... like a history class from 1980 onward.

Also, like FYIColumbiaMD, lets look as that isn't on the test: nothing on the test about any world history, or foreign languages.

Posted by: someguy100 | November 22, 2010 8:18 AM | Report abuse

Refreshing. Tweak this 8th grade test a bit and administer it across the land following several years more of Duncan & Company's doomed reform. The US Dept. of Education can then count all of the Jethro Bodines, without a calculator.

Posted by: shadwell1 | November 23, 2010 9:58 AM | Report abuse

The scope of what young people are required to learn has expanded so much since 1931 that there are no meaningful comparisons to be made here. Ask an 8th grader from 1931 to open an Excel document and they'll be as stumped as today's 8th graders trying to figure out the biggest "health resorts" in the US.

Posted by: reiflame1 | November 23, 2010 11:09 AM | Report abuse

Interesting. I like the questions in the Civics part:

-Show how good home life tends to decrease the need of government.


-What does the family do for the education of the children that the school cannot do? What does the school do that the family cannot do?

What? Families have responsibilities in education? How refreshing. Here I thought the school was supposed to do everything!

Posted by: rrap1 | November 23, 2010 1:30 PM | Report abuse

This does look like the revision of a hoax that has passed through the email circuits for years.

Posted by: jbeeler | November 23, 2010 1:44 PM | Report abuse

It would really be fascinating to see a grading key for this test. There is so much writing and so many of the questions could have many different correct answers. Did the children's teacher grade the exams, or were they sent in to some central team to ensure standard grades across all schools?

Posted by: JapanKate | November 23, 2010 10:04 PM | Report abuse

Amazing that students were expected to know this material, written in longhand, before there was a Department of Education to ensure resources were distributed equitably or that teachers unions were properly nurtured. Imagine...

Of course, today, a few days spent with Howard Zinn's textbooks would provide everything the student needed to answer subject questions. Sprinkle answers liberally with descriptors like 'exploitation;' imperialism; 'genocide' and why, the kid'd be in like Flynn. Forget that math and geography stuff - it's irrelevant and so not outcome-based. Somewhere, an unemployed Ward Churchill would have something about which to smile....

And I would gladly put the coping skills of a student able to tackle this level of material against those sad 21st century specimens who, unable to read nor write (I see it at the master's degree level), but who possess a veritable haversack of talent in sending text messages or 'opening an Excel document.' Give a month with both. Care to take bets which group masters the others subject skill sets? (reading/writing/comprehension vs using a PC or cellphone keypad)

Posted by: oldcorps76 | November 25, 2010 9:58 PM | Report abuse

If the writer of this article is finding the test from 1931 difficult to complete, then she would most certainly fail the state tests that are now in place. Since NCLB began, states have had to design tests to show knowledge measured meets the standards and having administered the tests, I know first hand that they are so far beyond what anyone my age learned in the 60's. I would suggest the author ask to take a state test and in doing so, would walk away amazed. She would no longer question the education in our country today. I remember third grade math. We learned our multiplication tables. Today's kids are also expected to understand, and compute area and volume as well as basic geometry and algebra. I was not doing algebra until the 7th grade and my teacher got permission to teach it in 7th grade instead of making us wait until 8th grade. It has moved all of the way down to 3rd grade now!
Children are further advanced in science, health, geography, history, and reading too. I learned to read in first grade and now kids are entering Kindergarten reading, and reading more than "Dick and Jane" books.
The one area that is not covered as in depth as when I was in school is penmanship. This is ok by me. Some hands are neater than others. My only "D" was in penmanship and to this day I cannot make a pen flow as I would like. Why punish a child when they do not have the physical ability to write at perfect levels?
I would absolutely love to see a team of writers come to my state and take our exam. The 4th grade test would be difficult, and the 10th grade test almost impossible for the average adult to pass, and impossible for someone who was not a college graduate unless having furthered their knowledge in other ways.
Yes I often hear how kids today leave high school unable to do math or to read. Maybe it is due to how high our standards are set. They may just feel lost that they tune out early on in their education. It could also be due to the number of foreign born children where they have left countries where education ends in the 8th grade or so.
There was a time when an 8th grade test was taken, and a diploma was given. Montana still does it, but we do not in Washington. This test was because that is where one's education ended. (Remember Laura Ingall's was a teacher following 8th grade.) To succeed today, education must go further and it does. We expect more from all industries. Cars are better made, medicine has advanced greatly since the 30's, and even our homes are better constructed.
Anyone thinking today's kids are not better educated are fooling themselves. Every time someone makes a negative statement about education they are the same as bullies. They speak of what they know nothing of and perpetuate myths.
One last comment, do not even begin to say that youth in other countries are testing at higher levels than in the U.S. Name a country that tests Special Needs and non-native speakers in their tests?

Posted by: lorrieann123 | November 28, 2010 9:34 AM | Report abuse

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