The following commentary is based on the a historical test given by the state of West Virginia in 1931. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/education/v/tests.pdf
(Disclaimer: If you have never come across this blog i would recommend opening and scanning the article.)
The question, which was posed to me earlier, was to critique it based on current practices.
The test is broken down (much the way we still do) into 10 subsections:
Physiology and Hygiene
U.S. and (State Specific) History
Note the sections here. The questions are, for the most part, critical thinking questions (short answer) to test your own understanding and knowledge on the topics above. No where do you see multiple choice. there is one matching section, and one correct the sentence, but there are no multiple guess scenarios.
Furthermore, the content is broad, i myself would not have passed this test with an acceptable grade. where as our tests focus on content, it is apparent that the questions here apply, to a much greater extent, to context. This is not so much a preparatory test, but a skill check. Is the student prepared for the workforce, does he or she understand the context of the state, its history, government? Can he or she relate this ( Orth. Pen.Gram.) and work out difficult tasks with others? It appears to be a well rounded exam.
Our current tests seem ghost-like in comparison. The student sits down after a night of cramming to work on a page of multiple choice questions, a page of fill-ins (with word bank), a math section of non-contextual numbers, and maybe two essays (choose one).
I cannot speak to 8th grade tests for certain, as they are not in my field, but this is what i remember. Irrelevant questions, whose answers i knew for the hour and left me quickly there after. There were certainly no sections on civil gov. or penmanship, and state history... that would have been at the very least, interesting, but no.
Could it be used now? I believe it would take time to prepare the students for such a test, but yes. It is clear to me that this type of testing is rooted firmly in a meaningful context and that is always preferable to irrelevant trivia.