Here’s that famous “eighth grader” test, but was it really for their teachers?

crcted.0920 (Medium)A teacher sent me this purported copy of an 1895 eighth grade exam with this note: As a former 7th and 8th grade teacher, I assure you that 8th grade students today could not answer even ten of these questions. However, though I wasn’t in school in 1895, the instruction in these subjects in the 1940s and 1950s and before was totally along these lines and every student was expected to master this information. Not that I don’t believe we should alter and adjust information to keep up with the times, the fact remains, even if the questions were more current and useful, questions of this quality would never be seen on an exam today

This exam has been making the rounds since it was first printed in the Salina Journal in 1996, but there is some doubt that it was ever intended for students. There is evidence that it was actually a qualifying exam for teacher applicants. (This site explains that the exam mentions “applicants” rather than “students.”)

Either way, I don’t think many of today’s teachers or students could answer these questions. I sure can’t.

But as some observers have noted about this test, it doesn’t address literature or poetry. And we could easily construct a test based on today’s advances in science and math that neither the eighth graders 0f 1895 nor their teachers could pass. So, while this test is tough for today’s students, I am not sure that 1895 students would fare much better on a 2011 battery of tests.

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) [Do we even know what this is??]

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.’ (HUH?)
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.
7. 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.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

65 comments Add your comment

David Sims

April 8th, 2011
5:11 am

Linguists have a number of special marks, including the umlaut, the caret, and the tilde, that specify the way a letter in a word should sound. Orthography is both the subject of correct spelling and of knowing which mark to put where, assuming that you intend to use them at all.

David Sims

April 8th, 2011
5:12 am

And the rising and falling accents. And the dot and the circumflex.

David Sims

April 8th, 2011
5:14 am

You know, if a 19th century teacher wanted to up the difficulty of her test, she’d write it in Latin.

Forsyth County Mom

April 8th, 2011
6:08 am

Holy cow!!!!!


April 8th, 2011
6:17 am

I notice that most of the math is quite practical, such as might be needed by a farmer or rancher during that time period.

Do we teach our students the practical math they need to know? How to balance a checkbook, what the interest on a mortgage, an automobile loan, a “payday loan” might be, how to file taxes, etc?

HS Math Teacher

April 8th, 2011
6:39 am

I forgot the volume equivalent of a bushel. I’d also like to know how long a “rod” is. Oh, the days of long division with decimal divisors…


April 8th, 2011
7:20 am

Eighth graders should know all of this by the time they finsish fifth grade. I did. Just another example of how educational standards haveen watered down since I was in school in the 50’s and 60’s.


April 8th, 2011
7:55 am


April 8th, 2011
8:03 am

Any test is tough if the content is not taught along with allowing time for mastery. It would also be interesting to hear how many teachers recognize any of these topics from the GPS.

Teacher Reader

April 8th, 2011
8:06 am

Having read the readers from this same time period, many of our students would not be able to read from them either. We require less and less of our children, so that they rely more and more on the government.

A Conservative Voice

April 8th, 2011
8:21 am

If I’m not mistaken, in 1895 an Eighth Grade Education was considered an accomplishment and the items being taught at that time reflected what a person needed to know to function in that era. It’s a damn crying shame that here in the twenty first century, we’re not doing the same thing. Instead, we’re babysitting, teaching algebra (despite the fact that many students required to take this subject will probably never use it) and not teaching life skills. Our educational system is out of touch and getting worse……wake up!!!!!!!


April 8th, 2011
8:44 am


April 8th, 2011
8:47 am

My grandfather, born about 1890, went through 8th grade in rural Illinois, near Hannibal, MO. This could very well be an 8th grade test, as they were allowed to sit for the exam to “pass” for a teacher after 8th grade. My grandfather did that, in about 1904, and passed He had beautiful handwriting, and wrote lovely letters back to his bride (one of 13 children, who had a 6th grade education) during WWI from France. My dad was born while my grandfather was “over there”, and I have a postcard he sent my grandmother, that happened to be mailed the same day my dad was born.

So, actually, it probably was both a test given 8th graders and the teacher competency test as well.

Sad how far we’ve sunk.


April 8th, 2011
8:53 am

AJ -Right on! Thanks for the SNOPES.


April 8th, 2011
8:54 am

Congressman Chip Rogers could have passed it if his parents had let him go to private school. I’ve got to think that Rogers was a nerd in school, got picked on and that his voucher crusade is his revenge against public education. Can we send Rogers and Eric Johnson to Haiti?

John Adams

April 8th, 2011
8:55 am

Tough test! I was a history major as an undergrad (back when the earth was still cooling), and still had to look up a couple of those dates and people just to be sure. I guess that an 8th grade education “ain’t what it used to be.”

GA Teach

April 8th, 2011
9:11 am

The test is not different today. The test have the same questions today and most of them are harder. The biggest difference is we use MC test. In fact, our students are expected to know more global information on exams today.


April 8th, 2011
9:14 am

HS Math Teacher – I just read about the definition of a rod in “The Know-It-All” by A.J. Jacobs (he read the encyclopedia and wrote about it). Apparently, a rod is “the length of the left feet of 16 men lined up heel to toe as they emerged from church.” (pg 201) So, maybe that’s why we didn’t keep rod in common usage as a reliable form of measurement!


April 8th, 2011
9:35 am

Notice that this test does not ask a student to pick the best answer among 4, or to choose true-false. Certainly this measurement is much higher-order than what we require of students now–to have to actually THINK and WRITE DOWN your own answers!


April 8th, 2011
9:36 am

Wow, please give me at least a month to study for that test!

I don’t know if my grandmother went as far as 8th grade or not, but she would have been a teenager in the 1890’s. Like Catlady, we also have beautiful letters, although hers are between her and her brother. Not only is the handwriting beautiful, but they are very well written.

I have a couple of books that were used by my mother and my father’s brothers in school. My mother’s is a 7th grade civics book from the 1930’s. 7th graders would die if they had to use this book. I also have The Aeneid in Latin that was used by my uncles in high school.

At the end of World War II, the U.S. gave many of its ships to France including the one my father was on. Even though he had only taken high school French, my father was the only one who spoke French and was asked to help with the transfer of the boat.

And all these folks were educated in Georgia public schools in Whitfield and Murray Counties.

Michael Moore

April 8th, 2011
9:40 am

Sometime take a look at the New York Review Books Classics ( These 250 titles were what the public was reading in the 30s, 40s, 50s…Think about what the public is reading today. Find one of these books at random and open it at random and check out the level of intellectual engagement it would take to read such books. Then go check the latest bestsellers list.


April 8th, 2011
9:58 am

Catlady, you hit the nail on the head! I wish the Lottery odds were a 1 in 4 chance of choosing the correct number ( multiple choice answers on test).


April 8th, 2011
10:09 am

My grandparents, dairy farmers in Illinois, had third grade and eighth grade educations. My grandfather always deferred to my grandmother because she had the higher education, but he had gorgeous handwriting and could write a beautiful letter. Possibly there were so many drop outs at the time because of children working and how hard the curriculums were? I know my father had to fight tooth and nail to get them to let him go to college. The focus was on going to work on the farm, not getting an education. Education was for the elite in their minds.

Dr. Proud Black Man

April 8th, 2011
10:31 am

@ David Sims



April 8th, 2011
10:33 am

I would agree today’s students are much more versed in complex science and math, but grammar seems to be a forgotten/lost art. And, yes, this exam doesn’t take the “arts” into account, but if one cannot effectively communicate their appreciation of the arts what does it matter. The lack of grammar and writing skills coming out of schools/universities today is abhorrent. The crap people try to pass off as professional business communication is seriously lacking in basic knowledge and understanding of the English language. Please don’t get me started on the lack of knowledge reagrding passive voice in professional correspondence. I really wish schools could focus more on this “practical” life skill of communicating rather than how many sets of numbers Little Timmy can add together in 3 minutes. By the way, I’m a high school graduate from this century who had public school teachers who taught these skills – not 50+ years ago. Oh, and I’m sending this on my phone so if there are typos, etc., please don’t discount the substance because of the form.

Wheeler Mom

April 8th, 2011
10:38 am

Are there any Laura Ingalls Wilder fans out there? This reminds me of the book (a later one in the Little House series, although I can’t remember which one) where Laura, at about the age of 15, is taking the exam to become a teacher – very similar stuff. I remember a passage about diagramming a sentence, which I thought was cool, because I had recently learned that as a 5th grader. I find it fairly likely that it could’ve been dual-purpose: completion of 8th grade as well as qualifications for teaching.

It think it speaks more about how times have changed that it was thought acceptable for a 15 year old to be in charge of a one roomed schoolhouse. I’m talking as much about the expectations on one who today would be still considered a child, as well as that younger ones would be expected to mind her.


April 8th, 2011
10:43 am

In 1895 an 8th grade education was considered a worthy achievement. Since most people still lived in rural setting, the focus was basically agriculture and the running of a farming community. Most young ladies were married by the time they were 13 back then. Yes the world was completely different back then, but it seems teenagers and young adults were more mature and had a sense of duty back then. City kids and the elite probably were better educated, only the men mind you and that was so they could work for daddy. In truth it appears all were well-behaved and being disrepectful was not toleranted, unlike todays kids. I must admit though I don’t know many high-school seniors who could past this test….what a shame.

just curious

April 8th, 2011
10:47 am

to AJ–thanks for the snoopes; i think what needs to be examed is the purpose of education. In 1895 apparently a good education required you understand what you needed to be successful in everyday life and to construct answers, not just guess right. Today we feel an education is needed so that we can beat the rest of the world in trivial pursit making sure that are well versed in “good guessing”. But then again, when people feel that playing the lottery is a ligitamate path towards making a living, i guess “good guessing” is an important skill.


April 8th, 2011
10:55 am

Tests today aren’t designed to actually measure anything, they are for collecting data. It would be too _____ to give a valid test.
a. difficult
b. costly
c. inconvenient
d. all of the above

Cobb History Teacher

April 8th, 2011
11:15 am

As a history teacher I will say the one difficulty in teaching history is that each passing year adds another layer (think of the layers of an onion or a parfait). The other difficulty is that most people don’t care even though the foundations of our society are based on this subject.

Those who fail to leran from the past are doomed to repeat it.

Cobb History Teacher

April 8th, 2011
11:20 am


“…THINK and WRITE DOWN your own answers!”

I teach 8th grade and that would require too much effort from most 8th graders. I watch 8th graders daily exert more energy avoiding work than actually doing the work.


April 8th, 2011
11:37 am

I agree with you wholeheartedly@Cobb History Teacher….This was my favorite subject in school and college. If we as a society want to avoid mistakes from the past, we have to learn how we came to be. Without history we have no identity.


April 8th, 2011
11:56 am

Cobb History Teacher: The fifth grade students HOWL if they have to write the whole sentence! Let them just write a one-word answer (copied from a choice of 2 in the book!) Then they don’t spell the copied word correctly! (If they copy the whole sentence, it will frequently have misspelled words, no capital letter at the beginning, and no punctuation at the end. And, God help us, many of them iNtersPerse theIr Print with raNdom capiTaL lettErs. Don’t even THINK of asking for cursive writing! These are 5th graders!) I swear I am not making this up!

Dekalb Oldtimer

April 8th, 2011
12:07 pm

@Cobb History Teacher:

Sadly, teachers today do not have [nor do they want to spend ] the time required to evaluate the “think and write down” answers.

Back in the day, every test or exam we took included what we called “essay questions” which required the teacher to spend massive amounts of time at home reading every answer, marking the errors, often writing in the correct answers and/or a comment/question about the student’s answer.

When I mention the dearth of those “think and write down” test/exam questions to my colleagues, I am reminded that many of the teachers back then were either single, widowed, and/or had no children to care for at home. Today’s teachers include women and men with families and often several small children. In addition to being swamped with senseless paperwork, meetings,inservices, etc, they go to their 2nd “job” at home when they leave school….to say nothing of the teachers who go the 2nd jobs and Macy’s or McD’s to try to earn enough to get them to the end of the month!


April 8th, 2011
12:10 pm

Catlady is dead on with her 11:56am post. It used to burn me up when a student would misspell a word that they copied from the board or book. It made me think that they were lazy, and didn’t care.

But I do advocate for test like the 8th grade test. If you really want to know what a student has learned, let it be applicable. And for the love of all things good, don’t make it a multiple-choice test. It will take you longer to grade, but you will get a better understanding of what students have really learned.

And what would really be good is if they could tie all of the subjects into five questions. Everything that was covered that year would be applied to this questions.


April 8th, 2011
12:13 pm

Dekalb Oldtimer, what if the students took an essay style test or the one that mentioned and the teachers had two weeks for grading the tests without students at school?

Jackie T

April 8th, 2011
12:33 pm

The mathematics involved in the test isn’t that difficult and today’s students also learn them by the end of 8th grade, if not earlier – percents, arithmetic with decimal numbers, proportions, etc. I don’t agree that today’s math classroom is “watered down” at all. What makes these problems “difficult” is obscure measurement units and conversion factors. I don’t see ANY problem for today’s 8th graders not knowing how long a rod is, for example.

Cobb History Teacher

April 8th, 2011
12:37 pm

@ Dekalb Oldtimer

I agree 100%. I’m one of those who would like to use more meaningful tests, however I’m one of those mentioned in your post who has family I have to care for (three boys 14, 9, 4) my wife goes to work later and comes home later therefore I have dinner to fix and children to feed. I generally can’t do anything work related until 8:30 or 9:00 at night by that time I’m tired as I’ve been up since 5 am, so grading 100 – 120 papers is probably not going to happen.

Reality Check

April 8th, 2011
12:40 pm

Most teachers today couldn’t pass this test. Statistics show education majors just above public policy majors (you know, government types) at the bottom of almost every test, GPA, etc. statistic. Thomas Dewey and the plans he implemented for public education had not yet completely destroyed education in america in 1895. Frankly I wouldn’t be so sure that many of the students of the day could not have answered these questions.

Warrior Woman

April 8th, 2011
1:17 pm

I don’t see use of “applicant” as any reason not to think this is an 8th grade test. Use of the word “applicant” could easily refer to applicants for graduation.


April 8th, 2011
3:27 pm

These problems are not any more difficult than what our 8th graders are studying. These problems appear more difficult because they use the language and items that are relevant around the turn of the century. I don’t care if our students (or teachers) know how many cubic feet equal 1 bushel. We also have had several rather significant events in US History since the turn of the century (previous one, not the 21st). Some knowledge that were practical and indispensable in 1895 are irrelevant and meaningless today. If we ask the questions from today’s test to the 8th graders in 1895, some of them would be very difficult for them. I don’t know why anyone would take this test seriously and make an argument about today’s education.

Former Middle School Teacher

April 8th, 2011
4:58 pm

I know some of the Republican Party want to return us to the late 1800’s but come on this is ridiculous.


April 8th, 2011
5:21 pm

My children actually know how to do some of this test, because we home school and use materials from the 1800’s. Ray’s Arithmetic (1877) is really hard, but really teaches reasoning skills. My 6th grader just learned how to figure a millage rate (for taxes) and knows how to figure compound interest. Before we took a week off for Spring Break, she was extracting square roots from 5 digit numbers manually (by the way, I figured out we never did this in school when my oldest took algebra and they had a chart to approximate square roots.) The story problems in the Ray’s series, in particular in the Intellectual (grades 3-4) and Practical (grades 5-6) required me to teach my kids to write equations to figure out the answers. When my oldest started algebra in the 7th grade, she considered it easy due to her training in Ray’s Arithmetic. You may think it isn’t useful to know how to figure a tax bill or figure compound interest, since it is done for us with computers, but I think this kind of knowledge keeps us from getting taken advantage of in our ignorance of the calculations used to figure the bills.

We also use Harvey’s Elementary and Revised Grammar, so many of the grammar questions are familiar concepts as well. I insist on my children learning to diagram sentences, not because they will ever use that as adults, but because it trains their minds in order and logic. What we are missing these days is attention to details and the ability to think, but before the early 1900’s and the “Progressive” changes by John Dewey and all his friends, children did learn to think for themselves.

We haven’t studied much orthography, but I am sure it is in the McGuffey’s or Webster Speller.

I can’t believe anyone could seriously try to say that our modern 8th graders are better prepared for life than 8th graders of the late 1800’s. They were definitely more mature, and certainly wouldn’t have considered themselves children at age 26.


April 8th, 2011
6:18 pm

@wheelermom yes, that was the first thing i thought of too! i have all the books, and the one where she takes the test is Little Town on the Prairie. she begins teaching in These Happy Golden Years. even at my age i still reread them from time to time.


April 8th, 2011
6:20 pm

for those who haven’t read laura’s books, her exam included arithmetic, spelling, geography, reading marc anthony’s oration of the death of caesar aloud, diagramming & parsing sentences in full, and a review of history. for all of this, she received a third grade certificate for one year.

Old School

April 8th, 2011
6:36 pm

I have my great grandfather’s teaching certificates from the mid-1800’s. His test scores are at the bottom of the certificates and include Orthography, Penmanship, Geography, Mathematics, Reading, etc. He did fairly well as most scores were in the mid to high 80s.

Back in 1939-40, my mom was a teacher in a one room school house at age 17. That was back when students graduated from grade 11. She taught first through 8th grade. My great uncle Norman was principal and upper grades teacher. The only discipline problems she had were boys who accidentally dropped marbles on the floor. She would simply hold out her hand and the offender would approach and hand her the errant marble. She kept them in a little tin jelly bucket. I’m now the proud owner of both the bucket (her former lunch pail) and the marbles.

I attended Birmingham City Schools in the early 50’s and remember penmanship classes every year from grades 3 through 6 (when we moved to South Georgia and no more penmanship class). I’m a firm believer in that particular skill being an important part of learning. I think better when I write something out and my ideas are more complete.


April 8th, 2011
6:58 pm

@ NG:

Just bring 10 8th graders from the turn of the 20th century to 2011 Atlanta with a time machine. I bet 9 of the 10 will not be able to function well.

Dekalb Oldtimer

April 8th, 2011
8:38 pm

@ justin….RE:”I bet 9 of the 10 will not be able to function well.”

No doubt about it, Justin. THey would be regarded as the Nerds of the Century!

Not that there is anything wrong with being an ethical, literate, principled, educated Nerd.

The primary source of difficulties they would face : the current widespread lack of respect for teachers AND for parents, the lack of interest in and perceived importance of education, the commonplace cheating by students and teachers, the video games, and the outside activities of our 8th grade students today.

Yep…….real difficulty functioning.


April 8th, 2011
10:32 pm

I have a collection of antique public school textbooks and readers. This type of information/test is quite common in texts up to 1900. This test would be for STUDENTS. This is the power of the Trivium method. Students were required to MEMORIZE a broad set of general factual knowledge at a YOUNG age. By the time they were in 8th grade, they could draw on this memorized knowledge to answer more complex questions that required abstract thinking. Our A Bekka curriculum still uses this same methodology. Most public high schoolers would struggle with their sixth grade grammar course. Never underestimate the power of memorization in the lower grades. Students were also schooled in DEPORTMENT and public speaking skills. A lost art in today’s schools!


April 8th, 2011
10:39 pm