Do You Remember: High School Entrance Exams?

Glen Goodhand

My wife says I am a “pack rat”. It’s not that I am a collector so much as I am a “keeper”. I find it hard to throw things away, especially if they have special meaning to me.

I have a plastic model of a World War II Hawker Hurricane fighter plane (circa 1942) and a toy replica of a 1938 Ford Couple, which are two memories from my boyhood days. Hanging in my clothes closet is a hockey jacket presented to all members of the 1952 All Ontario Juvenile “D” champions. Above it on the shelf is a uniform hat that I wore when I drove a delivery truck in 1956. On my filing cabinet sits an Emerson table model electric radio (that still works) which my dad purchased when we first got hydro on our farm in 1948.

Less sentimental, but of more significance, is a different category of keepsakes. It is an envelope containing all my public school and high school report cards. Perhaps the weightiest item is my High School Entrance Certificate, granted by the Ontario Department of Education, and dated July 11, 1949. It is the most pertinent of the entire collection of educational documents. It outranks the whole kit and caboodle.

For example, even if a student received a perfect row of A’s on their Grade 8 report card from their local school, unless that entrance certificate was obtained, they would face another shot at that final public school grade, and high school would be just a pie in the sky.

In 1871, the Ontario School Act was passed. While there had been province-wide exams in the 1860s, in 1874 it became mandatory to pass the “entrance” exams to enter secondary school. Arithmetic, grammar, geography, spelling, diction, and composition were included.

As early as the 1840s, there was a groundswell of concern over the whole approach to schooling. It was common for children to attend classes haphazardly—sometimes for as few as two or three years. That concern continued to grow in the 1860s. Communities were widespread, and schools were small (the one-room variety). There was no common standard for teaching qualifications, and it resulted in haphazard preparation for the next level of learning. Many students were not ready for continuation school curriculums. That same act meant pupils could not quit school until they had reached the age of 14.

The climax came in 1926—which was called the “Year of Centralization”. Courses of study, including their nature; the time when they would be administered, and the length of time they would be studied; was taken out of local hands. By that year, a student who was nearing the end of their last year in public school would know what to expect. Essentially, they would face four examinations, set by the Ministry of Education. Normally these were taken two each day over two consecutive days.

These tests were written in a central location. For instance, in my case, every Grade 8 student in the Township of Mariposa met at the Little Britain High School (10 miles from Lindsay). There were no specifics for studying or preparation—the recollection of knowledge gained during the year was the only source from which to draw.

That mathematics would be included was a no-brainer. And during those tense moments, it often felt like “no brains” was a reality. Fractions rattled the calmest student. And those “problems”—like “Farmer Brown has 10 cows and his neighbour has twice that number, so how long does it take for the neighbour to milk his herd?” The logic of arithmetic goes like this: “If there is a 50-50 chance something will go wrong, then 9 times out of 10 it will!”

Composition and grammar were also a sure thing. Occasionally one was called upon to write a brief essay on a local news item like a tragic barn burning and the suspected cause. As well, there was an assignment for “any grammatical errors be corrected”—in a sentence like “Bill Smith’s cows is in the corn instead where he done put them”.

Social studies included both history and geography. It paid to know the answer to “what year was the War of 1812?” Or, “name one state through which the Mississippi River flows.”

Science covered a broad spectrum of topics. Human health was part of it. Brushing one’s teeth daily and bathing every Saturday night were considered essential hygiene. Understanding the birth of a butterfly and how pollen was spread was also essential; but not about the birds and the bees.

This system was discontinued after 1949—my graduation year. Had I been born in 1936, I would have missed out on those delightful deliberations.

There were no graduation ceremonies. At some point later, the Entrance Certificate arrived in the mailbox (or it didn’t), and the local paper printed a list of those who had “passed their entrance” and who would begin secondary school education in September.