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Common Core Wars – A 1912 Exam Reminds Us How Far We Have Fallen

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test 2 web.scott.k12.va.us These days anyone with children or familiar with educational matters has heard of the Common Core State Standards. These are standards adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, and they have been met with remarkable resistance from parents, teachers, and many wise voices (including Diane Ravitch) who have questioned the CCSS and the drive to connect them with standardized tests and teacher evaluations.

A recent story in The Huffington Post featured a test from 1912 given to eighth graders in Bullitt County Schools in Kentucky. In this rural area, the “final” exam was serious business. According to the article, only students who did very well would get “scholarships” and be able to go on to high school; the others most likely went back to their farms and started working there.

Proponents of the CCSS always talk about “rigor” and “relevance” when mentioning them, but as witnessed recently in New York State and City, students taking standardized tests linked to the CCSS had tremendous difficulties. Since these tests were aligned to the standards without much thought on the part of the state and city, parents, teachers, students, and advocates are all screaming for some kind of accountability. Why were these tests thrust on students and made to count this year? Why were teachers so poorly trained in the CCSS and asked to then “prep” students for tests aligned to them? How could the state and city in good conscience use these scores in teachers’ evaluations and decide whether or not they kept their jobs or were let go based on student performance, which everyone predicted would be substantially worse than in previous years?

test huff postI bring all this up because the 1912 test illustrates how far we have fallen. I have a doctorate in English and have been a teacher and school administrator, but the test challenged me. I sat down to take it in part just for fun but also to understand the level of “rigor” that was expected of 13 and 14 year old students in 1912. The test is indeed difficult and time consuming, with each section counting as a sub-test worth 100 points. Spelling, Reading, and Writing sections were dictated by the teacher (today’s standards for “listening” do not even come close to the difficulty found in this 1912 exam). We can only imagine what was expected here (since the dictation is not included), but judging from the listed spelling words the expectations must have been quite arduous.

The other sections are Arithmetic, Grammar, Physiology, Civil Government, and History. Any of these sections would be daunting as a stand alone test, but combined seem almost like a cruel joke; however, this was a reality and there is no indication of how much time students were given for each section. Extensive writing is required in most of the “content” sections, and the Arithmetic questions are not simply answered and require students to write as well as compute (something advocated by the CCSS).

I have to tell you that I struggled with some of the questions, (in part because of the lack of my own preparation), but also because I did not know how to answer some questions in the Arithmetic section. For example, I was unsure of a question 2 in Geography (Name and give the boundaries of the five zones), but I imagine that those Bullitt County eighth graders were well prepared in this and more. Question 1 in Physiology (How does the liver compare in size to other organs in the body? Where is it located? What does it secrete?) not only has multiple parts, requires previous knowledge, but also involves writing an extended response. Rigor and relevance indeed!

Consider question 10 in Civil Government (Describe the manner in which the president and vice president of the United States is elected). Sadly, there are many students today who do not even know the name of the Vice President, let alone how he gets into office. This is another extended response and one that will take time and thought to answer. A related question asks students to give the number of electoral votes for each state. All of these questions are complex and their nature qualifies the kind of education students were receiving in those days. This was not rote learning by any means, as is usually depicted in films and books about education in days past. Students were obviously taught to think deeply, to know their grammar, and to be able to write well and extensively.

grad ndla.orgI too have thought negatively about the “old fashioned” school house and school master in terms of recitation and repetition. I pictured Mr. Gradgrind from Charles Dickens’s novel Hard Times. His type of education was constantly and seemingly mindless drilling. Gradgrind cared little about acquired knowledge and understanding, assuming that memorized facts and figures indicated scholastic accomplishment.

Today we know this is not true, but we also know that people are reacting negatively to the “rigor” of the CCSS because they are difficult beyond what students have been learning in recent years, and it is indisputable that we dropped the ball so often that attempts to bring us back up to speed are going to be met with derision. The true problem is not that CCSS require higher expectations for students, but rather the way they were forced upon parents, students, and teachers without reasonable notice or preparation.

Still, a short glance at this 1912 test indicates not only how far we have fallen but how much we have yet to accomplish in education in 2013. Having taught both high school and college English classes, I can tell you that the Grammar section would be not only difficult but almost impossible for today’s students to pass. I have met only a few college freshmen over the years who know the parts of speech, and almost all of them have trouble finding a noun or verb in a sentence. Question 7 in that section asks students to “diagram” a sentence, but this is not even taught (sadly) anymore. I recall being taught this, and once you knew how to diagram a sentence, you understood parts of speech for the rest of your life.

As we consider the state of education today, we have too many cooks and not enough broth to go around. Students are being test prepped to death in order to meet standards on these exams, and in my opinion this is little better than Gradgrind’s drive for students to remember facts and figures. Most educators know that test prep has nothing to do with true teaching, and teaching to the test is as much of a disaster these days as it was in Gradgrind’s time.

A test like this one from 1912 elucidates the obvious – most high school and college graduates could not pass it, never mind our current eighth graders. I challenge you to take the test (with no checking the answers found in the link provided in the article noted above). See how well you do and start timing yourself. You will be amazed by what those eighth grade students knew, and you will realize what you missed in your own education; more importantly you will understand how far we have to go if we want to rise above the petty differences about CCSS and truly educate our children.

Photo credits: test-huffington post; gradgrind – ndla.org; student – web.scott.k12.va.us

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About Victor Lana

Victor Lana has published numerous stories, articles, and poems in literary magazines and online. His books In a Dark Time (1994), A Death in Prague (2002), Move (2003), The Savage Quiet September Sun: A Collection of 9/11 Stories (2005) and Like a Passing Shadow (2009) are available online and as e-books. He has won the National Arts Club Award for Poetry, but has concentrated mostly on fiction and non-fiction prose in recent years. He has worked as faculty advisor to school literary magazines and enjoys the creative process as a writer, editor, and collaborator. He has been with Blogcritics since July 2005, has edited many articles, was co-head sports editor with Charlie Doherty, and now is a Culture and Society editor. He views Blogcritics as one of most exciting, fresh, and meaningful opportunities in his writing life.
  • bliffle

    I remember tests like this from the 1950s. I’m not surprised that modern youth has been cheated out of the tools of clear thought and expression: I watched aggressive parents at PTA meetings tear good teachers and valid coursework apart to make up for their own children’s deficiencies in the 1970s.

  • Victor Lana

    Of course, you are right, Bliffle. The incongruous thing is that public officials, state ed. departments, and school districts are making children suffer for their mismanagement of the introduction and implementation of the CCSS. It is disgraceful.