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Do facts and data back up the anecdotes of old-timers—namely, that the eighth-grade education of the past was just as challenging academically, if not more so, than that which happens in today’s college classrooms?…

Today’s education system has a myriad of advantages that earlier generations never would have dreamed about. Smartboards. Tablets. Advanced science labs. Massive libraries. These perks are wonderful and suggest that our schools are giving children a much better education than they would have had at an earlier time.

But what if all these advancements are just smoke and mirrors? Is it possible that the parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents of today’s students had a better education?

Understandably, such a question might be met with skepticism, particularly since these points are framed around I-remember-when anecdotes rather than hard evidence. But once in a while, some of that evidence surfaces, causing thinking individuals to ponder the possibility that today’s education system is perhaps not all it’s cracked up to be.

Such was the case when I came across a collection of Regents Exams—the exams required to graduate from high school in New York—in the New York State Library. The archives provide a variety of exam subjects and range in date from the 1930s to the present. Curious, I pulled up one of the oldest, a 1934 American history exam, and did some quick, first page comparisons with the one given in 2017.

The most obvious difference was the question-answer format. The contemporary version was full of questions like the following, requiring a simple multiple-choice selection:

Zenger question

Aside from a brief matching section, however, the 1934 exam relies on essay questions like the following:


The second difference is the difficulty of the material discussed. The modern exam asks questions about basic issues in our nation’s history, such as slavery or the structure of the American government:

Federalism Question

The 1934 exam, on the other hand, delves into deeper, more challenging subjects that the basic student of history would not necessarily be familiar with:

Civil War

A third observation has to do with the level of critical thinking each exam requires. As mentioned before, the current exam relies heavily on multiple-choice questions, precluding the need for students to reason beyond preprogrammed answers:


By contrast, the 1934 exam is full of questions which not only demand an answer, but also ask students to reason and advance an argument relating to the facts:

US Senate

After considering the differences between these two exams, which would you want to take? For my money, I’d settle for 2017 exam in a heartbeat, knowing that its easy, standardized nature would make it far more likely to achieve a passing grade with very little preparation.

Yet in spite of its easier nature, many students still struggle to pass the exam, even to the point that many have advocated dropping the Regents test in recent years.

All this should lead us to wonder what kind of education our children are receiving today. Do facts and data back up the anecdotes of old-timers—namely, that the eighth-grade education of the past was just as challenging academically, if not more so, than that which happens in today’s college classrooms?

Republished with gracious permission from Intellectual Takeout (May 2018). 

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4 replies to this post
  1. Having taken AP tests in US and European history, I do agree with you that it is unfortunate that students are expected to put most of their energy into multiple choice tests. Often times, kids spend time learning about about how to “narrow down” potential answers when confronted with potential options, rather than being allowed to independently recall the necessary information and reason through how it would be appropriate for a response.

    That being said, I don’t think that we are completely neglecting the value of the short answer: the AP US history test does have short answer questions, in the form of one “document based question” and two “free response questions” (if memory serves, its been six years). I think its more a matter of expediency and technology that prevents schools from using more short answer questions. Every year nearly three million students take AP tests. The College Board has a limited number of graders who can take the time to reason through how students are responding to each question. By contrast, multiple choice questions on a scantron can be quickly scanned and graded.

    Of course, the AP classes themselves have a number of issues regarding how well they really prepare for the undergrad college experience, but thats a question for another time. Overall, the pressure in for high performance standards has lead to a secondary education experience that for many kids is overly regimented and dehumanizing. I wish that there was a good way to maintain high standards, and help kids to think freely and engage with the subjects on their own terms.

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