Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A 1931 Standardized Test

These kinds of things flash around the web periodically.  In this case, it's a 1931 8th grade test from West Virginia.

A Washington Post education blogger posted it with the teaser, "you will probably flunk."  And so continues the rich tradition of the implicit claims about how much harder, more demanding and generally better schools were 'back in the day.'  And this time it's from a fairly liberal (generous and leftish) supporter of schools.  It seems such a foregone conclusion that things were far better back in some bygone era (any bygone era) that we all believe it without even realizing we believe it.

Indeed, there are many interesting and good things about the test.  The breadth of subjects is wider than we test for today.  The social sciences are represented by separate tests for geography, civics and history.   Spelling and penmanship get their due alongside reading and English, which is a bit of grammar.

And the social studies questions are wonderfully engaging open-ended questions demanding explanatory answers.  "Why are the textile mills disappearing from New England?"  "Explain the part played by agricultural machinery in national development?"

That's all well and good.  But there are also some interesting (read, surprising or deficient) things about the test.

Take the reading exam.  The test asks primarily recall questions about works the student has read (or was supposed to read).  Students do not need to read on the test.  They need to have read and now recall things like who wrote what piece or passage.  This is partly a test of memory then.  Further, we all know that some students can give an effective "short report" on books (one of the questions calls for this) they haven't actually read.

Or look at the arithmetic test.  The highest math skill tested is fractions and percentages.  Fractions and percentages are the beginning of the 8th grade math year now.  Today, if fractions and percentages were as high as you have gone, you would take the math remediation class in 8th grade.

Finally, we get no detail about just how students fared on the exam.  Did most pass?  Did most fail?  Was it an even split?  Further, what percentage of 14-year-olds even took the test?  Did some racial, socio-economics, or geographic groups finish 8th grade--and take the test--in different proportions?

And then look at the exam again, especially the social studies.  "Connect the person with the thing he is responsible for."  (By the way, Amundsen is misspelled in this list.)
I would think that it would be fairly possible for a student to connect Wilson to the 14 Points and Susan B. Anthony to Women's Suffrage and really know nothing about those people or the thing for which "he" was responsible.

In other words, they actually had the same problem with standardized tests back then that we have now.  They weren't necessarily testing the things they wanted to test.  Tests are invariably like that.

At least one thing does look more serious...the stakes.  We talk of high-stakes testing today.  Look what's at stake on this 1931 test.

"These [test] grades do (or do not) entitle you to an Elementary Diploma which admits you to any High School in West Virginia."

Now those are some high stakes.  And to whom is that sentence addressed?  "Dear Pupil," that short letter starts.  The stakes, consequences, incentives, etc., are on the student.

That is different.  And, dare I say it, better.

1 comment:

Andrew Milton said...

Let me add that my social studies colleague developed a wonderful overview handbook that guides the whole 8th grade social studies year at our school.

In it, students are not only asked to record some of the civics and history details they need (role of the various branches of government, rights protected in the amendments, etc.), but they are also required to situate those topics and issues along various spectrums like freedom and equality, public good and private wealth, etc.

It was a richly conceptual approach to the material, and I think it was both intellectually demanding and engaging. I know....I used the material in my class.