Are You Smarter Than an Eighth Grader (From 1895)?

The Salina Journal, a daily newspaper in Salina, Kansas, has published a final exam that was given to local eighth-graders in 1895 (via this friendly website). (“It was taken from the original document on file at the Smoky Valley Genealogical Society and Library in Salina, KS.”) The PDF is available here.

I would be very curious to know how modern eighth graders would do on the test — not that success would necessarily be all that meaningful. I also wonder how Watson would do.

My favorite question is the very last one: “Give some general directions that you think would be beneficial to preserve the human body in a state of health.”

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 do, lie, lay 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, 1.25 hours)
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 percent.
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 percent.
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.

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 theRebellion.
7. Who were the following: Morse, Whitney, Fulton, Bell, Lincoln, Penn, and Howe?
8. Name events connected with the following dates:

Orthography (Time, one hour)
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’.
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,super.
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 Fermandez, Aspinwall and Orinoco.
6. Name and locate the principal trade centers of the U.S.
7. Name all the republics of Europe and give 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 inclination of the earth.

Physiology (Time, 45 minutes)
1. Where are the saliva, gastric juice, and bile secreted? What is the use of each in digestion?
2. How does nutrition reach the circulation?
3. What is the function of the liver? Of the kidneys?
4. How would you stop the flow of blood from an artery in the case of a laceration?
5. Give some general directions that you think would be beneficial to preserve the human body in a state of health.


seems to me there's a lot of shifting priorities here. Any chance we could get a modern eighth grade test to compare it with?


We're clearly not in Kansas anymore.


Haven't these tests from the past been well debunked by now?


If this were given as a final exam to eighth graders today, I expect they'd do pretty well on it. All of the skills needed to take a test are things that are taught by the time you're in eighth grade.

Now if you took a bunch of random eighth graders (or adults) and gave this as a general knowledge test, I'd expect the results to be pretty poor.


Snopes even has this very example:


Are you smart enough to check Snopes?


Wonder how the grades ran and if they were "prepped" for the test.



snopes is your friend.


The details of this "exam" are sketchy:

Stephen B.

Many of the arithmetic questions involve conversion factors between units we don't even teach about today. My shop teachers used tools that were sized in fractions of inches, but my math and science teachers consistently only used SI units, and I graduated high school in 1986.

I do remember being taught how to write a check and a receipt in elementary school, but neither of my daughters was taught that.

My 7th and 8th grade grammar lessons involved diacritical marks and their uses, but again neither of my daughters has been taught these things, and I don't think either of them knows the difference between objective and nominative case. Our modern curriculum seems to emphasize self esteem.

I'd say that elementary school, now as then, prepares children to interact with society. Back then if you didn't know how to convert between cubic feet, gallons, and bushels you weren't much good to the other farmers in Kansas. Nowadays, if you know when to use, "we," and when to use, "us," the public at large doesn't have much use for you.



Is it possible that, at a time when the majority of people dropped out of school before getting to even the 8th grade, these questions were never meant for what we would consider to be mainstream 8th grade students at all? But rather, because 95% of their peers were working on the farm, these are implicitly meant for the smartest, most dedicated students?


After going over the questions quickly, I conclude that I'd manage a C+ on this (or maybe a B- if your grading system differentiates between one level's plus and the minus of the next level). Alas, the high-paid professionals of my acquaintance, most of whom have advanced degrees, would undoubtedly do no better than I, and most of them would flunk. (Now let's make way for all the posters who scoff that this exam tests facts and information, which are boring and utterly irrelevant to knowledge and creativity. ;} )


Snopes doesn't say it is not a real exam... it says it might not indicate a decline in educational standards. I just think it is interesting... such an emphasis on language!


'Interestingly', it isn't just about the intelligence, but some of these questions are just plain incorrect.
Not just the physiology, which we know they didn't know as well as we do now the function of the organs; but the question regarding temperature of Pacific vs. Atlantic. This is clearly wrong, as the avg. temp of the Pacific is in fact colder than the Atlantic (Yes, I know it says at a given latitude, but my point still holds with simple mathematical arguments)

Math Teacher Bob

To quote Meredith Willson, "Ye gods."


The proper answer to a great many of these questions is "Be more specific."

For example:
"Describe the mountains of North America."

They're tall? Am I supposed to list all of them? Describe how they differ from those in other parts of the world? Talk about their climate, geology, ecology, popularity as tourist destinations?

"Name and define the Fundamental Rules of Arithmetic."
Even google doesn't know the answer to this question. There are quite a few rules of arithmetic, but it's not really clear which ones are more "fundamental" than any others.

"Give the epochs into which U.S. History is divided."
Divided by whom?


That seems to be a long time for the math questions, but no time at all for history.

The causes and results of the revolutionary war could take pages, unless "Britain was mean, we won" is enough.

Joe Lichy

Assuming the exam is valid (which snopes neither confirms nor denies), a couple things are interesting:

The focus on practical knowledge -- puts the lie to those decriing the demise of the arts in education.

Unit conversions! 116 years later we still haven't switched to SI. (I'm sure it will be many fortnights before we do).


Did any of you linking Snopes actually read what it said?

"Claim: An 1895 graduation exam for public school students demonstrates a shocking decline in educational standards."

Like Wendy just mentioned, the article never says that the exam isn't authentic. It just seeks to disprove the idea that the knowledge being tested is more advanced than in current school systems.

The snopes article even uses an examination for teachers from the same timeframe (1860) to further demonstrate its point.

Scott Kelley

I am a big fan of Snopes and often send people there.
That being said, this has to be the worst Snopes article I have ever seen.

Yes, plenty of reasonable points are made, obviously times have changed and people forget (i'd say the majority of) what they learn in school anyway. So What? The test is real. (snopes, oddly doesn't even address this point, straying from their purported purpose to opinion fluff)
It clearly demonstrates at least that what some students in part the U.S. were expected to know is more impressive than what kids are expected to know now in most places in the U.S.
(Though, for the record, this freakonomics article doesn't actually explicitly make this claim so the extreme "shocking declilne" statement "debunked" by snopes is not really even relevant)
Snopes clearly should have given this an "undetermined".
I say the Fail here lies with Snopes.