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.
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