105-year-old Saline County test in nation's spotlight


By TANA THOMSON The Salina Journal

For the second time in recent years, a Saline County eighth-grade test administered in 1895 is causing a nationwide commotion.

The test has resurfaced via the Internet, prompting the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, National Public Radio and other media to run stories and columns centered on the difficulty of the questions such a young group was expected to know.

Saline County students in 1895 were required to pass the test in order to graduate from eighth grade.

The test, published on the Smoky Valley Genealogical Society's Web page since 1996, originally caused a ruckus after some of the test questions debuted in The Salina Journal in February 1996.

The difficulty of the test questions prompted many to ask if eighth-graders today could answer them.

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby wrote that students and parents wouldn't grumble about standardized tests if they had to take tests like the ones given in Saline County in 1895. Jacoby dug up other historic tests from different places throughout the country, including California, New Jersey and Massachusetts. He said by far and away, the hardest was the 1885 Jersey City High School exam that asked students:

* What is the axis of the earth? What is the equator? What is the distance from the equator to either pole in degrees and in miles? * Name four principal mountain ranges in Asia, three in Europe and three in Africa. * What are the principal exports of France? Of the West Indies?

"It seems that they get harder the further back you go," Jacoby said.

His article picks on the "grumblers" and the "fumers" that say passing a standardized test to graduate from high school is unfair.

"Pupils, parents and pundits who think today's standardized tests are intolerable might find it instructive to spend a few minutes with the kinds of tests high schools use to administer," the article states.

Jacoby said he's gotten responses from all across the country because of the article which ran in the Boston Globe recently. He said he thinks the information needed to answer these questions is useful today.

"When I looked at (those questions), I wished I could answer those math questions without using a calculator," he said.

Washington Post picks up story

In a short story about the exam, the Washington Post said even college students today would be hard-pressed to answer the questions on the 1895 test.

"Most modern eighth-graders would be lost when they reached the part that seeks examples of 'trigraph, subvocals, dipthong, cognate letters and linguals,' " the Post said.

"And if they grew up in Salina, they would laugh at the lazy open-endedness of question five in history, 'Tell what you can of the history of Kansas.' "

Frenzy hits home

The frenzy over the questions lit fire across the country and the reactions have routed back to Salina. Shirley Towner, volunteer librarian at the Smoky Valley Genealogical Society, is responsible for putting the test on the web and she said the phone has been ringing off the hook and her e-mail mail box is always full of reactions to the 1895 test.

The test sat quietly on the web site for about four years but in the past few months Towner has been inundated with questions from the media, professors, researchers and people who are just curious about the exam.

When the responses first started coming in around April, Towner said she was receiving four or five e-mails a day. The e-mails usually request more information on the test or are asking if the test is authentic. Towner said she gets a lot of people in utter disbelief that eighth-graders were required to learn the information on the test.

Towner said it doesn't mean that students today aren't educated but is just a matter of the different learning styles and the change in subject matter that educators feel is important for students to learn.

"Evidently, children in 1895 were taught these lessons," Towner said. "They aren't taught the same thing today and that's why people look at it today and say it's hard."

Superintendent Gary Norris agreed.

"One of the major differences is it requires memorization and requires them to regurgitate a lot of facts," Norris said.

"Our tests are gearing young people toward the world of work. They are more problem solving type tests."

Even though the 1895 graduation test was given in eighth grade, very few people actually took the test, said Norris. Very few people went on to high school during that time period.

"Their graduation rate was only 10 percent, so, that test was prepared and administered for a very small portion of the population - it wasn't designed for the whole population."

He said the High school graduation rate is closer to 75 to 80 percent now.

More media attention: * A New York reporter also found the exam interesting. Charlotte Sherman, a reporter for Tri-town News in upstate New York wrote a column in Tuesday's Whitney Point Reporter centering around what she feels is the lowering of academic standards across the country. She e-mailed the genealogical society to get a copy of the test and some additional information.

She said she found the questions interesting and "eye opening as to education today."

She hasn't received any feedback from readers, she said, because it is too soon after publication.

* National Public Radio, headquartered in Washington D.C., broadcasted some of the 1895 exam questions on Wednesday afternoon. Kay Maddox, who called The Salina Journal for information on the examination, said she spotted the blurb in The Washington Post and thought it was an interesting tidbit to broadcast.

This isn't the first time the test has kicked up dust across the nation. Rush Limbaugh picked up the story causing a national stir in June of 1996 after a Salinan sent him a copy of The Journal's article. He talked of the difficulty of the questions on his nationally syndicated radio and television shows.

After Limbaugh's comments nationally broadcast, questions and requests for copies of the test swamped The Journal and the Smoky Hill Museum.

All above articles can be accessed online from The Salina Journal's web site.

* Reporter Tana Thomson can be reached at 823-6464, Ext. 173, or by e-mail at [email protected]