The Problem with Tests and Exams a Hundred Years Ago

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Tuesday, April 15, 1913:  Tomorrow witnesses the beginnings of our final examinations. I do hope that I’ll pass.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Hang in there Grandma—you’re almost there. Your graduation invitations have been mailed. You’ll navigate your way through this final hurdle.

The way students are tested today is controversial. I was amazed to discover that people also had concerns about exams a hundred years ago.

Here is an excerpt from an article in the October 1912 issue of Ladies Home Journal called “The Black Beast in Every Child’s School Life”:

No evil in the present American public-school system is, to my mind so great and so manifestly unjust to the pupil as what may very aptly be called “the black beast of every child’s school life”: examinations, as they for the most part now are conducted. .

Examinations, as they are now almost universally conducted in our schools, are a memory extortion pure and simple. An examination is supposed to be a final twist which will forever fix in the memory as a whole the items that have been put into it one at a time.

Why should we longer put our children to these terrible strains as we do now? I have tried to think out a good reason and I am unable to do so.

The dictionary is always at hand when the pupil is studying his lesson, and so can be referred to at will. Besides this the grammar is always accessible, to explain new an unusual forms and phrases that appear in it.

But when examination day s comes every one of these rightful and useful helps in his work is taken away from him, and arm’s length of memory alone if he is asked to translate, give forms of words and account for constructions, without any assistance from the tools that he ordinarily has been permitted to use.

Memory-test examinations must be abolished. Time was when the word “scholar” meant a wailing dictionary. There are too many words now, and knowledge has too vast a reach, to be compressed into any one single head. Besides, what’s the use? Dictionaries are cheap. The missions can have cyclopedias now; and things are so much easier to get at, so much more reliable withal so much more liable to keep in any climate when preserved for ruse in this way.

26 Responses

  1. Great post. Especially since I am an adult educator. I definitely do not want my students memorizing everything. I want to make sure they know how to find the latest information instead. However, there are definitely things that we do need to memorize. The hard part is to know what needs to memorized and what can be looked up. What is your base knowledge and what can be looked up when needed :-).

  2. That’s a great article. Thank goodness education always seems to be a matter for discussion. When we stop being concerned, that will be the time to worry.

  3. As I read your Grandma’s diary, it’s so obvious that she’s ready for this school year to be over (and I felt that same way!).

  4. It seems there is never really a right or wrong way to gauge student progress. I have a feeling your Grandma will do well.

  5. Very enlightening. I had always thought 100 years ago rote memorization was considered the way to go.

    It’s very important that children learn critical thinking. I think, though, it’s a process as the child grows up. Memorization is a part of education but not all of it.

  6. Exams have never been valuable, never will be, but when politicians get in there or some know-it-alls, they think testing is the answer.
    Do they not remember their years under attack? How can any one test or any battery of tests be an accurate measurement of the whole of a human being now and yet to develop?
    Enough said: Too many years in the making to solve with words, but perhaps over more time people will be so busy living they will teach and learn freely and without meaningless test results.

  7. Very interesting that student testing has been controversial for so many years. Personally, I think there is too much student testing but that’s for a different post :)

  8. She’s almost there!

  9. Fascinating last paragraph in that article: “There are too many words now, and knowledge has too vast a reach, to be compressed into any one single head.” I think about the amount of “knowledge” available to students today via the internet, every second of the day. Talk about vast!

  10. interesting.

  11. The problem with tests is that we expect every student to learn the same way, remember the same way, test the same way…not everyone can conform to the same pattern.
    With the internet so available to everyone any information is attainable. We need to help students learn how to access it, to have fun learning and be life long learners not test takers.

    • Good instruction that enables students to meaningfully access what is being taught, and helps children learn how to enjoy learning is so important.

  12. What a progressive way of thinking for that day and age. I guess no one took that too serious since memorizing exam materials was still a bit hit in my day and age….ok that was a while back, maybe it’s finally changed?

  13. Someone must have come up with a reason not to kill off The Black Beast, as it still exists today, although I do wonder why children are allowed to take a calculator into the examination room! :)

  14. HATE exams…nobody likes ‘em, so why do ‘em? The only good that comes from them is a shorter day of school.

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