Over the last week or so, the link to this 1869 Harvard Entrance Exam has been floating around. It includes Greek and Latin translation, grammar, and composition questions, a bit on History and Geography, and Math, Trig, and Algebra to round things out.
Many people sharing the link tend to include comments like the ones shown below:
But as I look at the exam, I think people are reaching the wrong conclusion. Are the questions about Greek and Latin difficult because of the structure of the question---or the content? I admit I couldn't pass that part, but if I'd had some education in those areas, I might think it was pretty simple. So, let's look at some of the other components.
Here is a snapshot of some questions from History and Geography:
These are not questions with much cognitive demand---they only ask for basic recall. What about math?
Again, these particular questions don't require a deep knowledge of mathematics. In 2011, some of the terminology might trip us up (When did the terms vulgar fractions and circulating decimals go out of style?), but the math skills involved would be found in much lower grade levels than high school now.
For me, this test is a perfect illustration of why it's important to communicate what we mean by "rigor," whether we're talking about the attributes of an instructional material or an assessment item. Does this test really show that we as a society have gotten dumber or that we expect too little from our students? I actually think I'd make the opposite argument. We might not include Greek and Latin with basic curriculum anymore, but we do expect a more intensive performance of deeper knowledge and skills. We also do this for all students and in a variety of subject areas.
The test also shows the importance of not using Bloom's Taxonomy as a hierarchy. It's just a taxonomy, people. "Recall" doesn't have be any less rigorous than "Synthesis," because it depends on the content. (I much prefer Webb's Depth of Knowledge because it includes both aspects: How you ask an item and what it's about.) The assumption that we're not as smart as 1869 Harvard freshmen is based on our lack of background on the specific content asked. What we value as a society in terms of what belongs in public education has always been an evolving target. Just because every high school graduate no longer completes coursework in Greek doesn't make them stupid or signal the end of civilization as we know it. I'd love to see an 1869 Harvard freshman complete the variety of performance assessments (or even standardized tests) we require now. I think they'd feel just as inadequate.