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What’s in a test?

For The Madera Tribune

These Howard School students pose in 1926. The 8th graders among them had to pass a rigorous examination in order to graduate and go on to Madera High School.


A couple of months ago, all of California’s public schools administered the state’s annual assessment tests. I think the battery is still called the CAASPP — short for California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress. We should be getting the scores pretty soon.

I don’t know how much is riding on the results of these tests, but my guess is that some adults have their fingers crossed. They would like to see some improvement over last year, especially in English and math.

I am also thinking that very few, if any, of the students are worried. How could they experience individually any consequences for poor performance on the tests? No one is going to whip them. No one is going to flunk them. My guess is that not very many of them care.

In my first years as a history teacher, I told my 8th graders that if they didn’t pass the Constitution test, they could not graduate. That wasn’t true, but I don’t think any them believed me anyway.

Over the years, we have had to endure a score of different attempts to evaluate learning in our schools. We have had the CTBS, the CSTs, the CMAs, the CAPAs, the STSs, and that boondoggle of state and federal tests that gave us our APIs and AYPs. Now we have the CAASPP.

I am wondering if we shouldn’t step back 100 years and take a lesson from the past. How were Madera’s schools evaluated then; who did the evaluating, and what were the consequences?

One hundred years ago, the county board of education was in charge. It controlled the content of the curriculum and its implementation. There was no ambiguity. Everyone knew what was expected and what the consequences would be if those expectations were not met.

The proof of this can be seen in a document from June 1918, in which the Madera County Board of Education laid down the law for its pedagogues. The board established the following rules, which applied to every school in the county.

Any student who sought graduation from the 8th grade had to sit for an examination prepared by the county board and sent out to the schools. The board determined when the examinations would be given and when they would be returned to the county office.

Since agriculture was an important part of the curriculum, it is not surprising that there were a number of questions dealing with this subject. Another important area was bookkeeping. Students were tested on making bills and receipts, using checks, deposit slips, and money orders.

In the geography portion of the test, students had to identify 18 islands, 18 rivers, 16 bays and gulfs, and 32 cities on a world map.

The English section included transitive and intransitive verbs, objective predicates, classes and inflection of adverbs, sentence analysis and diagramming.

Since the singing of “good songs, well selected,” was made a part of the curriculum, the 8th grade exam included some inquiry into the students’ understanding of basic music.

Eighth graders had to memorize the 14th Psalm, The Star Spangled Banner, parts of “O Captain, my Captain,” and “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

Since American History was taught in both the 7th and 8th grades, this constituted the lengthiest part of the test and included questions from colonial to modern times.

It was a tough exam and went out to the schools in eight parts — all sealed. During the prescribed week, every eighth grader in the county worked on the same part of the test. On Monday morning, they took the geography portion; in the afternoon it was grammar and composition. Tuesday was the time for math, spelling and history. On Wednesday morning, music and hygiene were the subjects, while literature and word analysis occupied the entire day on Thursday.

Once the testing was complete, teachers had to do the grading, but they couldn’t dally around. The board had to receive the exams within five working days after they were administered.

And if that wasn’t enough, the teachers had to give an estimate of each student’s character in terms of “morals and manners.”

“The little niceties of manners,” wrote the board, “contribute much to the success of the individual and to everyone’s joy in life,” therefore, the students were to be assessed on the extent to which they exhibited those “niceties.” This list included the following items.

Punctuality — Was the student on time with assigned tasks?

Politeness — Was the student polite to schoolmates, to teachers, at home, and in public places? Did he or she understand that in conversations, interruption and blunt contradictions should be avoided; that whispering or laughing at lectures or places of worship and the chewing of gum in public places was not only rude but vulgar as well.

Neatness — Was the student neat, both personally and at work (desks, books, papers, etc.)? Just as important was kindness to parents, to the aged and infirm, to the unfortunate and to enemies. In short, was the Golden Rule the order of the day?

Besides all of this, the teachers had to determine to what extent kindness to animals, thrift, and a reverence for things sacred were a part of each student’s character.

Clearly public education has changed. The content of the curriculum is certainly different, and very few today would dare to take on the responsibility for prescribing public morals.

So much has happened in the last 100 years.

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