The Origin Of Standardized Testing-The Making Of A Monster?

How Did We Get Here? The History of Standardized Testing in Schools

Standardized testing has become so routine in our schools that we can hardly remember a time when it didn’t influence every school’s curriculum.  We just take it for granted and don’t stop to ask about The Origin of Standardized Testing-The Making of a Monster.

But while standardized tests have always been around, it is only in the last three decades that they have dictated the way schools teach.

Most teachers and parents agree that testing has had negative effects on schooling. The obsessive focus on test scores has led to schools that are rife with problems. Critics say that these tests produce many negative outcomes:

  • The tests stifle creativity in teachers and students.
  • They focus on punishment rather than improvement.
  • They force every school to adopt the same curriculum.
  • They create a culture of cheating.
  • They benefit only the private companies that publish and administer the tests.

In addition, high-stakes testing in schools puts even more pressure on teachers and students. They ask for high levels of accountability with little support for teachers or schools.

Standardized tests seem to cause more harm than benefit, at least as they currently work in our schools. It’s helpful to take a look back at how we arrived at our current state of affairs.

Early Reform Efforts

The first public school in the U.S. was the Mather School, a free, taxpayer-supported school in Dorchester, Massachusetts. New England continued to lead the way in public education. Schools began forming all over Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and the other early colonies. In 1642, Massachusetts made education compulsory.

Most of these schools were run by churches. Others were private academies. In response to public demands for education that was accessible to everyone, individual states began passing laws that funded free public schools. School became mandatory for all children in 1842.

The Prussian Model

In the late 1800s, the education reformers Horace Mann and Samuel Gridley Howe became interested in the so-called Prussian model of education. Mann was then the secretary of education for Massachusetts.

The Kingdom of Prussia had instituted taxpayer-funded public education that was mandatory for eight years. In addition, the Prussian model:

  • Divided students by grade level.
  • Required teachers to have specific training.
  • Taught a thorough, well-rounded curriculum.
  • Used standardized tests to measure outcomes.

Mann and Howe visited Prussia to see these reforms in action. They returned to the U.S. convinced that the Prussian model should be the standard for all school systems. Over the next decade, schools in every state opened under the Prussian model.

This was a troubling move on the part of American education reformers.  A quick read of John Taylor Gatto’s The Underground History of American Education notes: “The Prussian mind, which carried the day, held a clear idea of what centralized education should deliver: 1) Obedient soldiers to the army; 2) Obedient workers for mines, factories, and farms; 3) Well-subordinated civil servants, trained in their function; 4) Well-subordinated clerks for industry; 5) Citizens who thought alike on most issues; 6) National uniformity on thought, word, and deed.”

For the next century, schools still had enough self-sufficiency to set their own curricula. Testing was used to measure performance, but there was no punishment for teachers or schools who under-performed. The testing existed, but it was not the main objective.

Ronald Reagan’s Education Reforms

That changed in the 1980s. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education produced the report A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform. Promoted heavily by the media and the White House, the report gripped the public’s imagination. The report warned that American schools were falling far behind those of the rest of the developed world.

A Nation at Risk announced a number of alarming findings:

  • American students were falling behind the rest of the world in science, math and technology-related subjects.
  • Teachers’ low salaries and poor working conditions were not attracting qualified candidates to the field.
  • Teacher training emphasized teaching plans over subject knowledge.
  • High school graduates had to take remedial math and English courses when they enrolled in college or the armed services.
  • Half of the country’s English, math and science teachers were unqualified to teach those subjects.

In order to fix these problems, the report called for a standard curriculum, longer school days, more homework, higher teacher pay and nationwide standardized testing.

A Flawed Report?

A Nation at Risk was harshly criticized by researchers who concluded that its findings didn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Sociologist and education expert Salvatore Barbones blasted the report, saying, “It should come as no surprise that a commission dominated by administrators found that the problems of U.S. schools were mainly caused by lazy students and unaccountable teachers. Administrative incompetence was not on the agenda. Nor were poverty, inequality and racial discrimination.”

Despite these criticisms, the report set in motion several decades of education policies that tried to make schools and teachers more accountable. Standardized tests were the hallmark of these efforts.

No Child Left Behind

In 2001, President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) into law. This was a bipartisan bill that mandated strict federal oversight of schools. Among other things, the act required:

  • Standardized tests for all students in grades 3 to 8 and in high school.
  • 100% proficiency in testing for all students by a set deadline.
  • Stricter qualifications for teachers.


In 2015, the law was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that was signed by President Barack Obama. The Obama administration also issued waivers to schools that had failed to meet the requirements of NCLB.

The new law returned control of schools to the states. Testing requirements became more flexible, but “comprehensive testing” is still required in schools.

Wording in the ESSA points to the fact that schools were spending too much time on testing. On a practical level, however, preparing for the tests has continued to take up significant amounts of classroom time.

The Arrival of High-Stakes Testing in Schools

The NCLB may have gone away, but many testing measures that it put in place are still with us. These include the “high-stakes tests” that determine whether a student moves up a grade, graduates from high school or gets accepted into college.

These tests are also used to determine whether teachers can keep their jobs. Test scores determine a school’s ranking. Critics of high-stakes testing in schools say that they lead to a narrow curriculum, shut out non-tested subjects like music and art, and are more likely to have a negative impact on low-income and minority students.

What Is the Future of Testing in Schools?

Despite criticisms from teachers, education experts and parents, standardized testing as a form of accountability seems firmly lodged in our public education system.

Teachers, school reformers and parents have started pushing back at the testing model. Some schools are trying to come up with ways to meet the testing requirements while retaining some autonomy.

In the meantime, testing is with us and does not appear to be going away anytime soon.

Where Does Testing Fit in Your Future?

Have you watched students burst into tears due to extreme distress on testing days?   Or, have you watched students pace your classroom like caged animals while waiting to be released to an assigned testing room?

Those are two of my experiences.

If you’re a teacher that just can’t face one more year of what standardized testing does to your students, take a look at my #1 recommendation for escaping the classroom.

It’s a great resource for learning how to promote yourself, your aspirations, and your special concerns and is the place where I have learned everything you see on this website.


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8 thoughts on “The Origin Of Standardized Testing-The Making Of A Monster?”

  1. Wow!  I didn’t know any of this history behind the public school system.  While even today teachers are very underpaid, I do agree that focusing on testing is pretty destructive.  Passing a test doesn’t mean you actually comprehend everything either, as long as you can memorize most of it.  It really doesn’t ensure kids are learning and able to learn outside of school.  It just means they can pass a test so they don’t get punished by the government.  It’s sad really.

    • It is a sad situation!  Teachers and students loose many hours of valuable time that could be spent on meaningful material.  Instead, they are forced to grind away trying to cover material that in no way enhances the students’ future.  It’s a topic that deserves our attention.  Thanks for joining in the conversation!

  2. Oh boy…don’t even get me started!  I taught school for 25 years and have now been retired for 10 years.  I quit when the Core curriculum was the new and upcoming flop.  I have a masters in education and starting with no child left behind, I was dubbed as not knowing how to teach!  I completely agree with Salvatore Barbones!  We have left child development behind in the dust.  All we care about is scores and the report with an A that doesn’t mean anything anymore.  No wonder we have so many teen suicides!  We don’t teach the child, we teach to the grade.  I did find your article very, very informative and it condensed the information down to a good, readable form.  

    • First, let me thank you for your service to children.  You touched the lives of so many during your 25 years of teaching.  

      I also lived through the NCLB era.  You’re right, it was a flop.  It was an extremely expensive experiment that seemed to be controlled by folks who had no idea how a classroom worked, or how children learned.  The real shame is that it not only cost the U.S. taxpayers dollars from their pockets, but the education of their children as well.  

      You’re right, testing is king, and the scores are the only thing people pay attention to.  

      Thanks so much for the kind words, and thanks for taking time to join the conversation.  I appreciate it!

  3. I am one of those people who always fails in class. I get it that testing will be a way for us to find out how our children are doing in class. Let’s be honest here, have you ever applied anything in real life after school and all the tests? I think we need a new approach to education and teach them real life useful lessons. 

    Find out what the child is good at and their interest, and support their creativity. Instead of giving out a test (That I always failed), see their progress and the assignment.  Maybe have them come up with a last day of class assignment instead of taking a test? 

    I also hate the approach where the child has to memorize what he/she learned over the semester and expects the child to get all the right answers.  We just need practical lessons and approaches that we can use in real life. 

    I can tell you this much, I do not get to use any of the chemistry lessons in my career, why did I stress out so much about that test? 

    Oh well, hope the professional can come up with a better test approach, it’s their specialty.

    • You bring up some wonderful points.  Under the heading of well-rounded education, we force our children to sit through the same subjects year after year.  Many of the topics could be handled in one or two years, leaving time for each child’s interests, as you suggested.  

      Some schools already do projects instead of testing.  So, you already see what needs to happen in our schools.  

      One thing I would encourage you to do is get involved in your local school district.  Don’t leave it to the professionals.  The folks that considered themselves the professionals are the ones who created the mess we’re all trying to get out children out of!  Parents know best what their children need.  Speak up!

      Thanks for joining the conversation.  I appreciate it!

  4. This is a very interesting topic I’d love to address. Testing shouldn’t be a monster to any student, but should rather be a means of self improvement. In my own view, I think general curriculum are design for students to have broad knowledge about what is going on beyond their surrounding. Depending only on school curriculum might not be a help to the student, rather it can render them to be local champions. Testing can help students to know their strengths and weaknesses. The only thing I will recommend is that there should be enough practical theory for the student so as to be able to tackle necessary problems they need to solve. 

    • I’m glad you found the topic interesting.  When discussing regular classroom tests, I agree with everything you said.  Regular tests do give students a chance to assess themselves.  Knowing how you’re doing in a particular subject is a good thing.

      However, when we’re discussing high-stakes testing, there is very little interest in helping students improve.  It’s about sorting students with tests that they are told have major consequences for their lives.   The assumption is that all adults involved are altruistic and only want what’s best for students.  The reality is that this is a highly charged political issue that’s currently worth $1.7 billion to the testing industry.  The value to individual politicians isn’t as quick and easy to determine.  

      Thanks for joining the conversation.  I appreciate you wanting to get involved.  


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