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Are You Smarter Than An 8th Grader From 1912? Exam Questions From A Century Ago Revealed

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The November Examination was one of the county-wide tests that determined whether a student would go on to high school. army.arch / Flickr

Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader? is the snarky gameshow that uses grade school textbooks to prove that very few lawyers, physicians, and rocket scientists are “smarter” than their ten-year-old children. A new document unearthed by the Bullitt County History Museum suggests that the concept may have been a hit in Pre-WWI America as well. 

Any reader of James Joyce or Gustave Flaubert knows that 19th century elementary education was no picnic; however, the fascinating "Eighth Grade Examination for Bullitt County Schools, November, 1912” suggests that the difficulty was not exclusive to the private schools of literary overachievers. Kids from rural, turn-of-the-century Kentucky also had to know their datives from their accusatives. 

“Students came together at the county courthouse once or twice a year to take this ‘Common Exam.’ It was apparently a big deal,” museum officials write in the description. “The local newspaper urged students to do well, even urging seventh graders that it was not too early to start preparing. Some scholarships were provided to those who passed to go on to high school, which was also a big deal back then.”

The exhaustive exam consists of 57 questions that cover everything from arithmetic and grammar to physiology and civil government. Additionally, teachers assigned ancillary reading and writing tasks.

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"For us, this is just fascinating," said volunteer David Lee Strange, speaking to ABC News. "It puts us in the mindset of 1912. Some people say that the questions are trivial, but the questions relate to what the children at the time would have been familiar with."

To put it in perspective, this test was administered long before smartphones, calculators, and online information resources. Studying for it meant pouring over several atlases and flipping endlessly through encyclopedias. For anti-technology neo-Luddites who claim the inundation of information has dumbed down humanity, the difficulty of this test might serve their argument.

Are you smarter than a 1912 8th grader? Have a look at these sample questions and find out whether you would have gone on to high school a century ago. 

Arithmetic

Find cost at 12.5 cents per sq. yd. of kalsomining the walls of a room 20 ft. long, 16 ft. wide and 9 ft. high, deducting 1 door at 8 ft. by 4 ft. 6 in. and 2 windows 5 ft. by 3 ft. 6 in. each. 

At $1.625 a cord, what will be the cost of a pile of wood 24 ft, long, 4 ft. wide ad 6 ft. 3 in. high?

Grammar

How many parts of speech are there? Define each one.

Diagram: The  Lord loveth a cheerful giver.

What properties have verbs?

Geography

Name and give boundaries of the five zones.

Through what waters would a vessel pass in going from England through the Suez Canal to Manila?

Physiology

Describe the heart. 

Define Cerebrum; Cerebellum

What are the functions (or uses) of the spinal column?

History

Sketch briefly Sir Walter Rawleigh, Peter Stuyvesant.

During what wars were the following battles fought: –– Brandywine, Great Meadows, Lundy’s Lane, Antietam, Buena Vista. 

Who invented the following: — Magnetic, Telegraph, Cotton Gin, Sewing Machine, Telephone, Phonograph.

Follow this link for an answer sheet put assembled by museum staff. Many solutions are subject to debate, as the exam relies on terminology and “common knowledge” irrevocably lost over the past century. 

Extra credit if you can explain the unit “cord.” 

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