I thought this was pretty interesting. It purports to be (and I have no reason to doubt that it is) an 8th grade final exam given in 1895 in Salina, KS. I have seen it in the context of "gee, look how much worse our schools are" and to some extent that is unfair. Sure, I think we all can get a gut feel from the test that expectations on students were a bit more unyielding and rigorous back then. One gets the sense that the Salina school district has not had to defend the test in court against charges that it discriminates against ... whatever and that they would not really understand the current public mantra that self-esteem should somehow trump learning and achievement.
But the fact that you and I can't answer a lot of the questions doesn't really mean much. Some of it would be hard to pass because it asks for frameworks we don't necessarily ascribe to today. For example, it asks for the epochs into which US history is divided. I have no idea what such epochs would be and in fact they are probably irrelevant given we have twice as much history as a country today as in 1895. And it takes a minute to remember that when they say the "rebellion" they are probably talking about the Civil War. And as to "orthography," I am not losing much sleep at night over not being able to "Give four substitutes for caret 'u'."
In general, the test reflects a shift in teaching from a lot of technical memorization to the more conceptual. Kids who passed this test in 1895 could probably spell oddball words and fill out a map better than my kids, but I would be curious how well they would do on a five paragraph persuasive essay, something my eighth grader spends a lot of time on.
Math is one area where my kid's education would blow this stuff away. The math on this 1895 test is pretty tailored to the needs of a small farming town:
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 3942 lbs., what is it worth at 50 cts.
per bu., deducting 1050 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 cost of 6720 lbs. coal at $6.00 per ton.
6. Find the interest of $512.60 for 8 months and 18 days at 7
7. What is the cost of 40 boards 12 inches wide and 16 ft. long at
$20 per m?
8. Find bank discount on $300 for 90 days (no grace) at 10
9. What is the cost of a square farm at $15 per are, the distance
around which is 640 rods?
10. Write a Bank Check, a Promissory Note, and a Receipt.
But by the end of eight grade my kids will have had two years of algebra, not necessarily because they are smarter than kids in 1895, but because perceived needs change. My kids are more likely to need complex math for advanced science and technical degrees than they are going to need to be able to figure out how many bushels of grain will fit in the silo. Further, where is the science on the test? How about a second language?
My kids go to a private school, so maybe public school parents have a different perspective. There are a lot of reasons to criticize public schools today, but I don't think this test gives us much insight into them.