History Of Educational Testing Essay

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At the beginning of the twentieth century, most Americans did not know about scientifically developed tests. This situation changed after World War I. Wartime leaders implemented extensive intelligence and vocational testing programs to help them categorize the numerous military recruits with whom they were dealing. Popular newspapers and magazines raised awareness about testing when they informed the general public that the soldiers’ scores on the new assessment devices were unexpectedly low.

Once the war was over, former military psychologists accepted jobs in the schools. They implemented academic testing programs that were similar to those that they had employed in the armed services. Publishers supplied the school psychologists with tests in areas such as reading, writing, and mathematics. The publishers also provided specialized tests to industrialists and businesspersons. The numerous scholastic and business customers that they were able to nurture provided the postwar testing publishers with a solid foundation for growth.

Scientific testing was presented as efficient, cost-effective, and objective. Impressed with these positive features, influential leaders in government and business supported it. Most parents, who wanted to be reassured that their children were making educational progress, also supported it. At the same time, many professional educators opposed testing. They thought it was an unreliable and invalid assessment of students. Furthermore, they saw it as a challenge to their professional independence and expertise. Although confrontations between these groups continued, scientific testing became a critical component of American education. This entry looks at the history of education-related testing.

Early Intelligence Tests

Nineteenth-century teachers had evaluated student learning through recitation. This was a classroom practice in which the students took turns orally recapitulating key pieces of information about a subject that they had studied. The teacher determined whether the students had demonstrated sufficient learning. A group of disgruntled educators began to criticize recitation for being too subjective. They urged teachers to employ the new approach to assessment with which psychologists were experimenting.

Many scientifically minded educators were extremely impressed by Alfred Binet (1857–1911), a French psychologist who had created a distinctive intelligence exam. The 1908 version of Binet’s test relied on a limited number of simple tasks. For example, Binet thought that people had the intelligence of three-year-old children if they could restate numbers; describe pictures; identify their personal family names; repeat sentences of six syllables; and point to their noses, eyes, and mouths. Binet devised more demanding tasks to determine whether examinees demonstrated advanced degrees of intelligence. Because of its straightforwardness, ease of administration, and consistent results, Binet’s intelligence test became the template for instruments with which teachers could measure the academic accomplishments of their students.

Early Academic Tests

During the first half of the twentieth century, Edward Thorndike (1874–1949) was the most famous spokesperson for academic assessment and the assessment-centered approach to teaching. The distinctive tests that he and his colleagues developed closely resembled the classroom practices that they purported to measure. This correspondence bolstered the confidence of those teachers and parents who were skeptical about the novel instruments.

The tests that Thorndike championed were attractive for several additional reasons. For example, some of them could be administered to groups of students and scored with special effort-reducing devices. Another advantage was that many of the tests relied on statistical techniques that standardized the performances of students. School administrators who employed standardized tests could compare the learning demonstrated by two students, even if those students had used different textbooks or studied with different instructors. Although many educators thought that scientifically based tests would produce accurate estimates of learning, some of them also hoped that reliance on them would elevate the teaching profession to a more prestigious position in American society.

Tests were devised for all grade levels and in multiple areas of the curriculum. Additionally, they incorporated multiple types of tasks. For example, early reading tests assessed students’ abilities to use phonics, recognize words, interpret the meaning of sentences, form inferences, and employ illustrations as aids to comprehension. Tests of mathematics, writing, social studies, English, and science contained similarly diverse tasks. Some of these tests could be administered only to individual students, others only to groups, and still others had the flexibility to be given to either. Although most of the new tests were estimates of student achievement, a good number were diagnostic tools that could facilitate remedial instruction.

Those critics who distrusted the assessment that had been provided by teachers and school officials were extremely optimistic about tests. They thought that the new instruments could measure student learning more accurately than the teachers and school administrators could evaluate it. Some of them thought that tests could help create a business-like atmosphere in which school budgets would be linked to student performance. A few of the critics suggested that the scores earned by students on standardized tests should serve as the basis for giving merit raises to teachers or renewed contracts to administrators.

Impact Of World War I

World War I military leaders had asked psychologists to design tests that would differentiate those recruits who would be successful as soldiers. To the surprise of many persons, the scores on these tests revealed that a significant portion of the recruits lacked the intelligence to perform some of their critical duties. Conservative politicians used these data to dramatize the need for greater military preparedness. Many of them railed against the public educational system, which they thought had failed to meet a cardinal commitment to national defense.

Two types of intelligence tests were developed by the military psychologists. The Alpha Test was a written exam that could be used with large groups. The other exam, the Beta Test, was an interactive measure that was designed for soldiers who were illiterate or unable to communicate effectively in English. Although the press publicized the disappointing scores that soldiers earned on these general exams, it ignored their performance on many of the other tests that the army psychologists had created. Some of the alternative tests assessed the recruits’ aptitudes for the different military trades and vocations. Some of them measured the degrees to which soldiers already might have mastered the skills that were required for specific jobs. After the war, the military’s vocational exams were adapted so that they could be administered to job applicants or employees in industry, commerce, and business. They also were modified for use with high school and vocational school students.

Influence Of Entrepreneurs

Once they had confirmed that academic and vocational testing could be profitable, textbook publishers began to develop large inventories of materials for these markets. By the 1940s, thousands of distinctive tests were available and were administered to millions of students. Some of the most profitable products were completed by high school students as part of their application to selective colleges or academic programs. The Educational Testing Service, which was founded in 1947, quickly established itself as the dominant force in this market. As an indication of its success, the Educational Testing Service was earning annual income in excess of $100 million just 30 years after it had been founded.

Although the opponents of standardized testing attacked the entire testing industry, they frequently focused their criticism on the Educational Testing Service. They claimed that it was secretive, monopolistic, unethical, and unfair to students from racial minority groups. They were able to air these views in newspapers and magazines. As a result of the ensuing publicity, the New York legislature passed a “Truth in Testing Law” that required publishers to disclose the content on their tests. This 1970s state law enabled critics to uncover several incorrect items in these tests. Even while they were enduring sustained assaults, the Educational Testing Service and the testing industry in general continued to grow.

Test-Based Accountability

During the 1980s, a series of reports alleged that a crisis was threatening American education. By far, the most influential publication was A Nation at Risk. The authors of this 1983 federal report pointed to low test scores as evidence of weaknesses in the schools. Believing that the value of testing already had been demonstrated, they called for additional and more extensive testing to monitor the health of the educational system. Influential business leaders endorsed this report’s conclusions, including the recommendation for greater assessment.

Also impressed by the report, numerous state legislatures implemented testing programs to help them determine whether high school students should graduate, teachers should receive bonuses, or school administrators should be awarded new contracts. Because their consequences were so severe, these initiatives were characterized as high-stakes testing plans.

The National Educational Association, which was the largest professional organization representing teachers, repeatedly condemned high-stakes testing. However, polls demonstrated that the teachers had misgauged the attitudes of the general public. Once they realized that they lacked the nation’s confidence, the members of the National Education Association attempted to garner greater public support. They promised that they would devise teacher-endorsed assessment procedures that were more useful, cost-effective, practical, reliable, valid, and fair. However, the antitesting factions were unable to fulfill their commitment. As a result, their credibility dropped even further. Meanwhile, a bipartisan coalition supported testing. Backed by this broad political alliance, Presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush made standardized testing a key component of their plans for improving education.


  1. Giordano, G. (2005). How testing came to dominate American schools: The history of educational assessment. New York: Peter Lang.

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