Editor’s note: Here, from the Star Tribune archive, is the text of a 1997 story by education reporter Anne O’Connor referenced in D.J. Tice’s Oct. 20, 2019, column.
Questions on a 100-year-old test for eighth-graders send modern-day university professors scrambling for their reference books:
“Who were Winthrop, Sir Henry Vane, Thomas Hooker, Cotton Mather?”
And that’s from the United States’ history section. Never mind the history of Greece, England or Rome.
But a hundred years ago, 14-year-olds headed for high school were expected to know those people, those countries and a whole lot more. Today, with at least one-third of Minnesota eighth-graders failing the state’s basic-skills test, people from all over the political spectrum are asking if the schools are expecting enough of kids.
“High-school graduates of a hundred years ago were better equipped to face the 21st century than the graduates of today,” interim Urban League president Laura Scott Williams told a crowd at a recent rally in Minneapolis.
Williams’s evidence: a copy of an 1893 test used in Minnesota. The Star Tribune shared that test with people around the Twin Cities area to see what it tells us about education today.
Some students feared that schools have been dumbed down.
“A long time ago the standards were a lot higher than they are now; more was expected of students,” said Chelsea Stoner, an eighth-grader at Minneapolis’ Franklin Middle school, after looking at the old test. “People realize, well, this is too hard for us, so we’ll just lower the expectations until it’s really easy for everyone. So that anybody could really achieve.”
But is society really expecting less of students, or are the worlds of the two tests so infinitely different that students today simply know different things?
The answers may be yes and yes.
A test for the elite
The 1893 test, dug up at the Minnesota Historical Society by the Urban League, was a state exam to find the few who would go on to elite college-prep schools. It is stunning for its difficulty. The open-ended questions in the 31-page document range from higher algebra, freehand drawing and astronomy to Latin grammar, chemistry and geography. Its breadth and detail surprised many who looked at it.
Stanford Lehmberg, a professor of English history at the University of Minnesota, said the 11 questions in his field alone would stymie most people today.
“I’m amazed they would have been thought suitable at that age level. I’d be surprised if you could get passing scores out of many high-school students today and not very many college students,” Lehmberg said. “There’s a couple of them I’m not too sure of myself.”
He wasn’t alone.
Other professors were taken by surprise, including William Zimmermann, a professor in the Physics and Astronomy Department at the university. He wondered if even the top students today could answer the questions.
“It was quite a selective group [in 1893], but more than that it seems to imply a degree of preparation far above what we do now,” he said.
A different work force
Education was very different for 14-year-olds in the 1890s. For one thing, a mere 6 percent of the population, the upper echelon of society, went to high school. Most children went to work, either in the fields or in the factories growing with the Industrial Revolution.
“This required a labor force that didn’t need high school,” said Hyman Berman, a history professor at the University of Minnesota. “What they needed was someone who could take orders; someone with a strong body and perhaps a weak mind.”
Today, every child in the United States is guaranteed an education through high school. With universal education as the goal, standards are different. And with the invention of electronic scanners sometime around World War II, the multiple-choice test emerged as the standard.
Bill Smith, who is in charge of deciding what needs to be taught in Minneapolis schools, said that he believes students are well-prepared today, though they study computers and genetics rather than Roman history and geological rock formations. “I don’t want to return to the 1890s, no matter what the high-school test was like,” Smith said. “I know I wouldn’t have been in school in 1890. My parents didn’t have any money; we didn’t own any property.”
Present-day students probably could pass some tests that the 1893 students couldn’t, said Ayers Bagley, a Minnesota professor in the College of Education and Human Development. That’s partly because society wants different things from students today. “What are you going to emphasize?” Bagley said. “Do you want kids to come out of school with attitudes that will have them showing up for work on time, neat and clean? Do you want them to be able to work that calculator? Do you want them to be good in sales? What is it that you want from them?
“American society is very, very confused on this issue. It’s just too glib to say that standards have gone down when we’re talking about such different domains and expectations.”
Apples and oranges
Mark Davison, a professor in the Educational Psychology Department at the university and a collaborator on the current eighth-grade test, said it would be more fair to compare the 1893 test with today’s ACT or SAT college-entrance exams. The state basic-skills tests measure basic reading and math comprehension. Davison said the math on the 1893 test is more comparable with the ACT than the eighth-grade tests. However, all ACT questions are multiple choice.
Davison said a test has to match the education. “It has to focus on that which is common. If what is common is basic, then it has to be basic.”
But he acknowledged that “we do take a little more casual attitude when it comes to expectations. We have gotten pretty sloppy.”
Apples and oranges don’t even begin to cover the gulf between the two tests, said Kate Trewick, an assistant commissioner at the state’s Department of Children, Families and Learning.
The old test focuses on facts, but it doesn’t show that students know how to apply the knowledge. Today’s test is a basic literacy test, she said. While it is the only thing students have to pass today in order to graduate, there are plans for tougher standards.
“If the eighth-grade test was the only measurement that the state was going to depend on, I’d say, `Wow, we need to revisit this,’ “ Trewick said. “But the eighth-grade test is only a tiny slice of the pie.”
More tests to come
The grand plan is that by 2005, high-school graduates will have to show an ability to apply complex concepts to their lives. They’ll show their ability through tests and other measurements, such as student portfolios. Test designers hope that kids will reach beyond the gathering of information and be able to use the information in the workplace or in higher education.
So far, only the eighth-grade tests for math and reading are in place. (Next year, 10th-graders will start taking a basic writing test.)
The multiple-choice math test covers basic arithmetic, how to read charts and graphs and basic algebra. The reading portion of the test asks students to read newspaper articles and pick the answer to a question from the text.
Last year, 41 percent of students statewide failed the reading test; 30 percent failed the math test. Ninety-one percent of black eighth-graders in Minneapolis failed at least one part of the test. Those who fail can take the test again the next year. They have until 12th grade to pass.
“Know about the world”
That’s too little to expect of our students, argues the Urban League’s Williams. She has taken up the civil rights organization’s struggle for higher standards in school curriculums that the group’s late president, Gary Sudduth, began.
In a recent interview, she acknowledged that the 1893 test, which is heavily tilted toward European history, isn’t exactly what she expects from schools today. But, she said, a test that would require deep understanding of a subject and prepare children for the work world isn’t found today.
“To me this [1893 test] represents a level of consciousness and thinking and an ability to know about the world in which you live,” Williams said. “This  test just tells how well you can read some very elementary-type composition.”
The same complaint is heard from Mitch Pearlstein, the president of the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think tank.
Pearlstein said he doesn’t even need to compare the two tests, but simply look at the basic-skills practice tests.
“It is an insult; it is an absolute insult,” he said. “This is below basic. The fact that a number of kids are flunking it is flat out scary.”
Trewick, of the Learning Department, admits that there is a lot of work to do on state standards. But she’s optimistic. In the end, she said, today’s students are better prepared for today’s world.
“There was a time when it was OK to memorize the states and their flowers and their capitals. … We have to go way beyond that today,” she said. “The expectations are higher now, and they’re higher for more kids.”
An 1893 sampling:
• GENERAL HISTORY
Explain the decay of the Roman peasantry.
• MENTAL PHILOSOPHY
Define Will and show its relation to desire.
Name in order from the south all the states bordering on the Mississippi River. Give capitals of the same.
• PHYSICAL GEOGRAPHY
What is the approximate average rainfall in Minnesota?
What are the different types of indeterminate inflorescence?
• ENGLISH COMPOSITION
Write an anecdote of a balky horse, a kicking cow, or an intelligent dog.
High schools served only the elite in 1893
A look at the percentages of 14- to 17-year-olds who attended high school over the last 100 years.
2000: 96% (projection)
Source: Teachers, Schools, and Society by Myra Pollack Sadler