Are Tests Too Hard?

15-year-old Helena wrote a hundred years ago today:

Thursday, February 9, 1911. I’m glad our examinations are over for this month, gee whiz, some of the marks I got weren’t very encouraging, but I suppose it’s my fault. If I were to be made over again I would like to be made a little bit smarter than I am at present.

Recent photo of McEwensville High School

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

Grandma probably got the grades she deserved–actually she probably did better than what was justified (see the diary entries on February 7th and  8th). I know that I’m overthinking this entry and that she should have just studied more–but I somehow want to try to put it into some sort of bigger context.

Grandma is frustrated over her grades—and she probably was not alone. The early 1900s was a period when the nation was grappling with issues such as –What do students need to know? How can students successfully show what they know? And, how should that learning be measured?

In 1911 many students dropped out of school—often because the curriculum seem irrelevant or because of poor grades. There was an ongoing debate about how to measure learning and how tough the grading system should be. I don’t have specific information about McEwensville High School but based on this diary I assume that exams were an important part of the grading system. But nearby schools faced political pressure to rely less on exams.  Jack Williams’ A Historical Study of Education in Milton, Pennsylvania provides hints about how parents and students felt about examinations.  In the early 1900s schools, “strived for a lessening of the importance of examination. . . for removing non-essentials from the curriculum, for a greater flexibility in the grading system and for economizing of time.” 

In Milton there a huge uproar over inflexible exams in the early 1900s and many of the quarterly examinations were eliminated. According to Williams in 1905 the Milton School Board instituted a reward system for good students. “Under this system, a pupil in the grammar or high school could be excused from these examinations provided they had attained a standing of 90 percent of their daily work and that their conduct had been satisfactory.”