July 30, 2013 1:44 pm
In the early years of the 20th century, the students in Bullitt County, Kentucky, were asked to clear a test that many full-fledged adults would likely be hard-pressed to pass today. The Bullitt County Geneaological Society has a copy of this exam, reproduced below—a mix of math and science and reading and writing and questions on oddly specific factoids–preserved in their museum in the county courthouse.
But just think for a moment: Did you know where Montenegro was when you were 12? Do you know now? (Hint: it’s just across the Adriatic Sea from Italy. You know where the Adriatic Sea is, right?)
Or what about this question, which the examiners of Bullitt County deemed necessary knowledge: “Through what waters would a vessel pass in going from England through the Suez Canal to Manila?” The Bullitt geneaological society has an answer sheet if you want to try the test, but really, this question is just a doozie:
A ship going from England to Manilla by way of the Suez Canal would pass through (perhaps) the English Channel, the North Atlantic Ocean, Bay of Biscay (possibly), Strait of Gibraltar, Mediterranean Sea, Suez Canal, Red Sea, Gulf of Aden/Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean, Gulf of Thailand (may have been called Gulf of Siam at that time), South China Sea.
Eighth graders needed to know about patent rights, the relative size of the liver and mountain range geography. They had to be able to put together an argument for studying physiology. Though some of it is useful, much of the test amounts of little more than an assessment of random factoids.
So, if you’re anything like us, no, you’re probably not much smarter than an 1912 Bullitt County eighth grader. But that’s okay.
Tests like this are still done today, of course, often in the form of “scientific literacy” tests. The tests are meant to give an idea of how well people understand the world around them. But, in reality, what the these tests share in common with the Bullitt County test is that they quiz facts in place of knowledge or understanding. Designing a standardized test to quiz true understanding is of course very difficult, which is one of the reasons why these sorts of tests persist.
Writing for The Conversation, Will Grant and Merryn McKinnon argue that using these types of tests to say that “people are getting dumber” or “people are getting smarter” is kind of dumb itself. “Surveys of this type are, to put it bluntly, blatant concern trolling,” they say.
We pretend that factoids are a useful proxy for scientific literacy, and in turn that scientific literacy is a useful proxy for good citizenship. But there’s simply no evidence this is true.
Like asking a 12-year old Kentuckian about international shipping routes, “[t]he questions these [science literacy] tests ask have absolutely no bearing on the kinds of scientific literacy needed today. The kind of understanding needed about alternative energy sources, food security or water management; things that actually relate to global challenges.”
So, really, don’t feel too bad if you can’t finish your grandparent’s school exam—the fault lies more in outdated ideas of education than in your own knowledge base.
But, with all that aside, taking the Bullitt County quiz is still kind of fun:
More from Smithsonian.com:
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.