This is a test

Think you’re smart? Sharpen your pencil and see how well you fare on this basic teachers’ examination from San Diego, 1891

Not one of us who is currently teaching in the county [1986] attained a grade of eighty-five percent, the minimum score acceptable for a first- through third-grade teacher. Only one person came close to passing.
  • Not one of us who is currently teaching in the county [1986] attained a grade of eighty-five percent, the minimum score acceptable for a first- through third-grade teacher. Only one person came close to passing.
  • Image by david diaz

Until a short time ago, I felt fairly comfortable in my profession. I teach at one of San Diego’s high schools, and although my classes tend to be overcrowded and the work schedule extends well into the weekends, I like my work and have been told I’m pretty good. As for qualifications, I hold bachelor’s degrees in Mexican/American studies and liberal arts, as well as a general and a secondary credential in social studies and English. I’ve accumulated more than eighty postgraduate credits and am working on a master’s degree in history at SDSU. And last year I was honored by my school’s PTA as outstanding teacher of the year. Not bad, one might say, considering the national teacher shortage.

But recently, while doing research at the San Diego Historical Society’s Research Archives, I was shocked to find that if I had applied for a teaching credential a century ago, I wouldn’t have been hired to teach even the primary grades. The object of my consternation was the “Examination Questions Used by the County Board of Education, June, 1891, for Primary Grade Certificate.”

The San Diego County Board of Education published the examination, which was administered to prospective teachers hopeful of receiving locally granted teaching credentials for the primary and grammar grades. In 1891 the primary grades comprised grades one through three, while the grammar grades included the remaining five grades in the elementary school system. If a teacher hoped to teach high school, he or she would have to pass both the primary and grammar examinations and then face a third test in their specialty field.

Locally granted certificates were not the only means of acquiring a teaching credential in the 1890s. The California State Normal School in San Jose granted certificates to its graduates after the successful completion of a two-year curriculum, followed by comprehensive examinations that were designed to determine which credential would be granted. If, for example, a graduate passed the exams with a minimum grade of eighty percent, he or she was granted a “First Grade” certificate, which was valid for four years. Those who received scores in the seventy-sixth to eightieth percentile received a “Second Grade” certificate that entitled them to teach for two years. And anyone who fared no better than a score of seventy to seventy-five percent walked away with a “Third Grade” certificate and the right to teach only grades one through three.

If a prospective teacher did not. possess a certificate from a “teachers’ school,” such as the California State Normal School, he or she could still apply for the locally granted credentials, issued by the county board of education. The board’s examination was administered on an as-needed basis, and one’s score determined which of four teaching credentials would be granted. A score of eighty-five to eighty-nine percent merited a “Primary Certificate” (grades one through three); ninety percent of the questions answered correctly meant a “Grammar Certificate” (grades four through eight); a score of ninety percent and a demonstrated mastery of a specialty field in a second examination earned the applicant a high school credential; while a “Special Certificate” was awarded to kindergarten teachers.

The 1891 examination covered sixteen areas: English grammar, school law, geography, orthography and word definition, arithmetic, bookkeeping, vocal music, practical entomology, methods of teaching, U.S. history, primary entomology, physiology, civil government, reading, composition, and drawing. Also included were questions for grammar candidates in advanced bookkeeping, drawing, literature, botany, and zoology.

In June of 1891, the examination was administered to seventy-nine applicants. Although those test scores are missing, results of subsequent examinations still exist. For example, six years later, in December of 1897, thirty-four candidates took the test; sixteen of them scored above the eighty-fifth percentile, and seventy-nine percent of those hopeful teachers scored above the seventy-fifth percentile.

What follows is a list of sixty questions chosen at random from the June 1891 examination, which consisted of 270 questions in all (some of them had as many as ten subsections).

  1. Diagram the following and parse the conjunction: His behavior was such as to shock us all.
  2. Define and give examples of the following: A. irregular verbs; B. redundant verbs; C. regular verbs; D. defective verbs.
  3. How may participles be used?
  4. What are the holidays observed by the schools in this state?
  5. Name five important duties of the County Superintendent of Schools.
  6. Name two duties of the State Board of Education.
  7. Draw an outline map of South America and locate thereon the two largest rivers, the two chief cities, and the region where it seldom or never rains.
  8. Name and briefly describe four chief slopes or river systems of North America, and name the principal river of each.
  9. What and where are the following: A. Nicaragua? B. Victoria Nyanza? C. Lucknow? D. Tagus?
  10. Name the principal ocean currents; give the reason for oceanic circulation.
  11. Define the following words: A. dudgeon; B. cogent; C. apostasy; D. oleaginous; E. sentient; F. sententious; G. transcendental.
  12. Separate into syllables, and mark diacritically the pronunciation for the words above.
  13. Give four rules of spelling, and illustrate by an example each rule.
  14. At 32 cents a square yard, what will it cost to plaster a room (walls and ceiling) 18 feet long, 15 feet wide, and 10 feet 6 inches high, deducting 1/2 the area of three doors, each 3 1/2 by 7 1/2 feet, and 3 windows, each 4 by 6 1/2 feet?
  15. What would be paid for three loads of hay, weighing respectively, 175, 1936, and 2164 pounds, at $12.50 a ton?
  16. If my watch keeps correct time, and I go from San Diego (Ion. 117 degrees W.) to Washington, D.C. (Ion. 77 degrees, 48 minutes W.), will it be faster or slower (local time) and by how much?
  17. If I sell eight-ninths of a stock of goods for what the whole stock cost, what is my gain in percent?
  18. If 2/3 of A’s money equals 3/4 of B’s, and 2/3 of B’s equals 3/5 of C’s, and all together have $15,190, how much money has each?
  19. What three qualities have tones, and how are these qualities indicated in written music?
  20. Write the scale of G with proper signature.
  21. What is relative pitch?
  22. Write the first strain of the tune “Yankee Doodle,” arranged for three parts.
  23. Where does accent fall in 3/4 measure? In 3/8 measure? In 6-8 measure? In 4-4 measure?
  24. Classify the following insects as to order: flea, cutworm, ichneumon fly, lace-winged fly, cricket.
  25. What is the basis of classification upon which insects are divided into orders?
  26. Give a classification of the coleoptera.
  27. Tell all you can about ants.
  28. What was the government of the colonies prior to 1775, and how were their rights guaranteed, to what extent did they have the power of self-government, and to what extent were they controlled by the king of England?
  29. Give an account of the plot to supersede Washington as the commander-in-chief of the army.
  30. Sketch briefly the condition of the country at the close of the Revolutionary War until the inauguration of Washington.
  31. What officers constitute the cabinet of the President?
  32. Sketch the history of the territorial acquisitions of the United States since 1800.
  33. Name four orators distinguished in American history, four statesmen, four generals, four historians, four poets, four inventors.
  34. Point out three differences between an insect and a starfish.
  35. Give a classification of the animal kingdom to show the position of insects in the scale.
  36. Through what stages of growth does an insect pass?
  37. Name the seven insect orders, and give an example of each.
  38. Name ten insects you have seen in this county, giving the order to which each belongs.
  39. Give the composition of the bones in the human skeleton.
  40. Describe the circulation of blood in the human.
  41. Describe the two kinds of matter which compose the brain and spinal cord, and tell the purpose of each.
  42. How many pairs of nerves branch from the brain? Name several.
  43. What are the voluntary and; the involuntary muscles?
  44. How are the members of the judicial department chosen? For what length of term? What is the purpose for the above?
  45. What is the electoral college, and what representation has each state therein?
  46. Name the steps necessary for a bill to become a law.
  47. Describe the process of impeachment.
  48. Name and define the modulations of the voice.
  49. Prepare a skeleton or outline for a composition on climate.
  50. Draw a pentagon.
  51. Draw and define a compound curve.
  52. Draw and define a reversed curve. Applicants for the “Grammar Certificate,” i.e., those who hoped to teach in grades four through eight, faced the following kinds of questions.
  53. Name three kinds of lines used in working drawings, and explain the use of each.
  54. Draw an equilateral triangle with a four-inch base. Within it inscribe three equal circles, each tangential to two others and two sides of the triangle.
  55. Define prism, plinth, pyramid, and frustrum.
  56. Give a brief review of the “Lady of the Lake.”
  57. Give a short criticism of the “Alhambra.”
  58. What are some of the peculiarities of style of “Sir Roger de Coverley”?
  59. Name the order to which each of the following belongs: bat, owl, gopher, frog, starfish.
  60. Make a drawing of a flower, naming all of its parts.

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