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.

Zach St

I show several so called general knowledge questions from the Army Alpha exam, used during WWI to identify officer candidates, to my intro psychology students as an extreme example of cultural bias in intelligence testing. Most contemporary Americans don't know the ad slogan "There's a reason," who Christie Matthewson was, nor what car the Knight engine was used in. These were all common knowledge to [white, male, educated, native] Americans in 1917. Thus, the conclusion by the authors that immigrants and African Americans had lower "mental ages." Eighty years from now, Americans will not be able to identify "Think Different," Derek Jeter, or a Prius. If anything IQ (Standford-Binet, WAIS, WCIS, etc) scores have shown a slight increase, which is adjusted through test renorming to retain a mean score of 100 and standard deviation of 15.

Ian Kemmish

There are two kinds of exam in the world. One is to discover what you don't know. The other is to discover (or demonstrate) what you do.

With the exception of the arithmetic section it seems clear that this is mostly of the former kind. Today, setting anyone a such an exam (except in fun, like the International Maths Olympiad) would be as politically unacceptable as it was politically incorrect.


@jb, the question was comparing the coasts, not the waters. Compare the winter temperatures on the Pacific coast to those of the Atlantic coast. The Pacific coast is more moderate than the Atlantic coast during winter.


I think the question about the Atlantic coast intends to ask why the weather (winter?) is colder, and I think the answer is that the Atlantic coast gets its weather from the continental northwest, and the Pacific coast gets its from the oceanic northwest. That is, the Pacific coast weather is relatively moderated by the ocean.

What I remember about bushels is that one full of wheat weighs 60 pounds. It took wikipedia and Excel to tell me enough more to answer the question.


Personal favorite: they did not feel it was important to list "1776" for "8. Name events connected with the following dates" under US History.


My first assumption is that the students of the day were taught specific answers to questions that now seem vague to us. Questions like "describe X" probably had a defined set of answers that the teachers could verify easily. My second assumption is that most current 8th graders couldn't even name more than one North American mountain range, much less name and give attributes to all of them. Any 8th graders out there, please feel free to prove me wrong.


The Times used to hire fact checkers. Apparently, they don't for blogs. No matter. As so many have noted, is really good at this.

@Scott Kelley: Yes, the test is real. But re-read the snopes entry. It says the claim is that "An 1895 graduation examination for public school students demonstrates a shocking decline in educational standards." The claim is not whether or not the test is real--the claim is that students' inability to answer these questions demonstrates a decline in performance. Snopes rightly notes that this is a context-specific question, and that, among other things, one should note that an eighth grade education was about as high as most people went ca. 1895. Thus, being able to "write a Bank Check, a Promissory Note, and a Receipt" was a useful skill then. It's not now, for 8th graders.

Besides, anyone with a slightly analytic mind would know that how many bushels make a peck is not useful information today. How many bytes in a gigabyte might be useful now. No one knew that in 1895.

One thing is for sure: the history session is as devoted to trivia as are current dysfunctional practices for assessing knowledge of history.

Next, on this blog: What to do when you wake up in a tub full of ice, with a kidney gone.


Andrew Mitchell MD

to #14 the physiology question are still valid.
The question is about the Coasts, which is the land meeting the sea, The Pacific coast is warmer except in the Summer.


Dubner: I'd have done a bit more Googling / fact checking on this one if I were you, but then again, I am merely criticizing, not authoring something like this, so thanks at least for getting this out there for discussion...

You quote someone: "It was taken from the original document on file at the Smoky Valley Genealogical Society and Library in Salina, KS." But I don't see this anywhere in the original article ( ).

You also say immediately after the above statement, "The .pdf is available _here_". When you click on the link, it's an obvious mockup of an old-timey document, but it's not _the_ .pdf of the original document. The Salinas article calls it _a_ .pdf of the test, not an actual copy of the test itself. has better information than snopes on this ( ). For example, definitively stating it's an actual test, and also giving evidence that it's likely a teacher's test, rather than an 8th grade test.

As an added bonus, doesn't give the boring editorializing that snopes tends to do. Does this annoy other people as much as it does me?



I am currently working in Guyana in South America for the education department. There is a huge problem with education here as the curriculum and teaching styles are still largely reminiscent of the 1950s/1960s British curriculum used in colonial times (Guyana became independent in the late 60s). This means children are taught to recite shallow knowledge about sets, parts of speech, grammar rules etc, but on leaving school have little or no ability to apply knowledge, problem solve or study independently.

So bear in mind when looking at these questions that they probably reflect a very rigid syllabus where children would learn answers by rote, not understanding. Hence the weirdly ambiguous questions like 'describe the mountains of north america' - the kids would have learned word for word the 'correct' responses. I would strongly suspect that if you sat down with an 8th grader of the 1890s and quizzed them in more depth you would quickly find the limits of this approach.



Re #14: "regarding temperature of Pacific vs. Atlantic. This is clearly wrong, as the avg. temp of the Pacific is in fact colder than the Atlantic..."

But note that it asks the average temperature of the coasts, not the ocean. So depending on how far inland you define the coast as extending, there are various answers, ranging from "the question's wrong if you define it as a few miles (c.f. Mark Twain's famous comment about the coldest winter he'd ever experienced was summer in San Francisco), or a few hundred (the moderating influence of prevaling winds off the Pacific, vs from the Great Plains & Arctic in the east.

But as to the test, I believe that as long as you translated some obsolete/unfamiliar words and units (and changed the Kansas-specific questions), I'd get at least an A-.

Dan Inesanto

The test is real, and can be found here:


Though the role of school changed only a bit throughout the century, length of schooling has increased. As a result, we have more in-depth knowledge spread in a longer span of years. In 1895 eighth-grader had to have general knowledge in various fields, while today he has more in-depth knowledge in taught subject.

Tony Zito

In response to number 16, my guess is that the questions were specific enough for the class at hand, who were prepped on what was expected for a question such as, "Describe the mountains of North America." What intrigues me about this is what it reveals about changing fashions in 'knowledge'. The type of material here that I most wish we were still emphasizing is the geography. I've observed that students without some map savvy are at a real disadvantage in grasping national or world events. But the dates, the quaint unit conversion arithmetic, and much of the grammar aren't really worth much, and of course whatever 'epochs' of US history they were teaching then are long gone now.

Gentle Reader

Giving Dubner the benefit of the doubt, let's assume that he's aware of the provenance of the exam. I don't think a self-respecting journalist would simply cut and paste a forwarded email into a blog post and pass it off as real work. It would totally undercut his point, since even a modern eighth-grader could find it on Snopes.


There are a few missing pieces here: passing grade, passing rate, and content.

Passing grades vary, depending on the system and its priorities. (Different systems have different passing grades based on different priorities. I've personally encountered minimum passing grades of 35%, 50%, and 75% - all at the college level.)

Passing rates vary, as well. How many students make it to the 8th grade, and how many are expected to pass the matriculation exam? My guess is that a largish chunk wouldn't make it and be set to work instead, and a largish chunk didn't pass (which didn't matter - only a small number would move on to high school). So we're not comparing apples to apples when we compare modern to historical eighth-graders.

Last, but not least, we're looking at schools with fairly limited resources. My guess is that the exam was comprehensive, as well, and covered the full breadth of the 8 years of education. It's also entirely skill based, and these are all usable skills, whether to conduct business or read scripture or what have you. It would have been drilled to death.

So it's not a matter of brains; it's that we're a different society and demand different things of our eighth graders and ourselves.


Dan Inesanto

It's a real test, but it's not an eighth grade test. On the original scan (I linked to it earlier) there is a line

"The Examination will be oral, and the Penmanship of Applicants will be graded from the manuscripts."

It sounds like this is something more along the lines of a teacher examination

Sara R

I agree that this would have been for the most academic students as many had dropped out to work on the farm by 8th grade. I teach 7th and 8th grade Spanish to medium/upper level students and if I knew that this was supposed to be the outcome of learning I could teach to prepare the students. If they are taught from first grade with this exam in mind then they could make sure to cover all subjects before the exam in 8th grade. If they just randomly asked these questions (without preparation) the scores would be much different. People always think that students these days are horrible, lazy etc, but when pushed and given high expectations most students will excel. There will always be a few that will not care, but most will do well with a good teacher that has clear expectations.


I believe what we may be looking at here is the original source of the item the Snopes article covers.

Rather than follow the Snopes article, perhaps it would be better to read the article mentioned in the text of this one and also the article referenced in the right sidebar.

It sounds like some folks found a real test, Rush Limbaugh got hold of it and probably misused it as he is likely to do, then it circulated about the Internet and finally Snopes got hold of it. In the meantime, the folks in Kansas found more evidence of the claim that what originally went out from them was the real deal.


First, I find this test to be extremely ambiguous (as other people have also mentioned). For example, 8. Name events connected with the following dates: 1607 1620 1800 1849 1865. Well there are a lot of things associated with those dates, so are they looking for a particular answer, or is any one that works ok? A marking scheme could be helpful here.

Also, if you have seen Bloom's taxonomy of learning,, you can see that most of these questions are simple memorization questions (which are very specific to topics being taught in school) and a few slightly more difficult understanding questions. None of these questions ask for any application of knowledge, and are simply a reflection of what was previously learned that year. For example, in grade 9, (although being from Alberta) I had to learn all the states, their capitals, and where they are on a map. How many Americans can do that? Do I still remember it? Not a lot of it. Was I able to recall it when I needed to for tests? Yes. Again, just sheer memorization, no fundamental understanding of concepts needed.

It would be interesting to know if there was any formula sheet given for conversion factors. And although many people now would probably fail this test, who's to say the grade 8s did any better? There is something called a bell-curve. I am a first year engineering student and in my program of study a few years ago, the computer programming class had an average of ~23%. The average after curving was of course ~72%. Same could be said here.

A difficult test is no indicator to the intelligence of the students without seeing the results.



Re #35: "So it's not a matter of brains; it's that we're a different society and demand different things of our eighth graders and ourselves."

It does seem, though, that a good many of the questions are quite relevant today. How many could, in actual writing, cope with this one? "Use the following correctly in sentences, Cite, site, sight, fane, fain, feign, vane, vain, vein, raze, raise, rays." Indeed, it'd seem even more relevant in these days of spell-checkers.

It'd also be quite useful to have a basic understanding of climate, which quite obviously not every graduate of high school or college does. Or even most members of Congress, apparently.