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History of Traditional Assessment

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Saved by Krissy Skare
on November 20, 2009 at 11:27:41 am


It is hard to remember a time in American public education when testing was not on the forefront of the minds of teachers, students, administrators and parents. At "that time of the year", students are encouraged to eat a sensible breakfast, reminded to sharpen their number two pencils, and urged to do their best on the tests in front of them while principals pace anxiously in the hallways.  For principals and teachers, the waiting continues as results are processed and reports are generated. This is a familiar scenario to American educators, repeated over and over again in schools across the nation. However, standardized testing is a fairly recent historical development, and one that America has whole-heartedly embraced. By looking at the history of standardized testing we can get a sense of the inherent flaws and inequities that have existed in traditional tests since their very creation. However, today we see alternatives models like authentic assessment, which proponents view as a more accurate and useful direction for the future of accountability in American education.

The origins of traditional testing are traced to intelligence testing, first introduced by Alfred Binet at the end of the nineteenth century (Gardner, 1991). At the time, the French government that made school mandatory for all children ages 6-14. In response, Binet was asked to develop a system to determine which children were likely to succeed and fail in schools. His research led to the first intelligence tests and the concept of the IQ (intelligence quotient). The Binet-Simon scale was a series of around thirty tasks that increased in difficulty. Administrated to children, the test was purported to measure children’s intelligence. However, even these early tests were not without debate: “In trying to account for some startling differences in children’s performance on the scale, depending on their social and economic class, the authors acknowledged that much of the scale was laden with language and vocabulary skills learned at home in early childhood” (Sacks, 2000). Some controversy around the Binet-Simon tests emerged when it seemed that perhaps what the test was measuring was not entirely intelligence but also middle class vocabulary and values learned in families.

Despite this debate over the accuracy of the Binet-Simon scale, promoters of intelligence testing quickly imported the tests to America. The twentieth century brought change to the United States: faced with a rapidly increasing and diversifying population, and undergoing an economic and cultural shift from a largely agrarian to industrialized culture, leaders had to find a new way of classifying students. Using quantitative measures was an easy solution. America’s obsession with testing began in the 1910s and soon the American attitude became, “If something is important, it is worth testing in this way; if it cannot be so tested, then it probably ought not be valued” (Gardner, 1991).

Inspired by Binet’s intelligence tests, American proponents of intelligence testing became increasingly interested in tests that could evaluate groups rather than individuals. Lewis Terman developed a test that could be given to massive numbers of military personnel during World War One.  The tests were developed to identify those personnel who showed promise as officers.  Those who were not “officer material,” were weeded out and sent to the trenches. The World War One tests were of utmost significance because they were the first time multiple-choice tests were given out in mass (Gabbard, 2004). Terman also created the Stanford Achievement Test for students. The Rockefeller Foundation supported his work and in 1919 gave Terman the funding to develop a national intelligence test. By 1920 these tests were made available to public elementary schools. As of consequence to the current debate as to whether or not traditional tests actually widen the achievement gap, it is important to note that Terman was a eugenicist.  That he did not have everyone’s best interest at heart is an understatement, and in his 1916 book The Measure of Intelligence, outlined the purpose of his Stanford Achievement Test:

It is safe to predict that in the near future intelligence tests will bring tens of thousands of these high-grade defectives under the surveillance and protection of society. This will ultimately result in curtailing the reproduction of feeblemindedness and the elimination of an enormous amount of crime, pauperism, and industrial inefficiency.

Terman’s belief that intelligence was a hereditary gift and the testing methods that he and others developed to identify that gift aligned with the assumptions of the Progressive educational movement in the 1910s. Terman’s tests and assumptions were readily accepted and adopted without question. Of consequence, “by ‘scientifically’ proving that recent immigrants and blacks scored lower than whites due to an inferior mental endowment, he catered strongly to the nativism and prejudice of many Americans” (Gabbard, 2004). By sorting children into categories on the basis of their test results, Terman invented the early model for “tracking” students in American schools.

Capitalism played an important role in the newly industrialized America’s passion for testing. Test publishers began selling tests as early as 1916. “The commercial publication of tests is critical since many of the efficiencies of the testing industry, such as machine scanning, resulted from efforts to gain market share” (Gabber, 2004). American public schools strived to find a balance between efficiency and the idea that schools were the great socioeconomic equalizer.  Test publishers soon found tests to be very lucrative and became a powerful lobbying presence in Washington that backed the widespread use of the Stanford Achievement Tests (Gabbard, 2004).

In 1957, Russia shocked the United States by launching Sputnik, the first earth orbiting satellite into outer space. Americans feared they were losing ground as a world competitor and concluded that American education was at the root of this problem. In 1965, the government passed one of the most important pieces of legislature in the history of American education: the Elementary and Secondary School Act (which was reauthorized in 2002 as the present No Child Left Behind Act). Under Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary School Act “the law effectively mandated states to employ standardized tests in order to receive several billions of dollars each year in federal funding. The Elementary and Secondary School Act, then, had perhaps an unquantifiable impact on the expansion of traditional testing into American schools. The law became a powerful incentive for states to put in place elaborate testing bureaucracies for standardizing their testing programs and reporting information to the government” (Sacks, 2000).

Under President John F. Kennedy in 1969, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) was formed. NAEP developed a national testing system, making, for the first time, it possible to have state-by-state comparisons of student achievement. NAEP required that all students’ learning be measured using common standards and quickly became known as “the nation’s report card.” In the late 1960s the focus for educational policymakers became the creation of a national standardized test. (Sacks, 2000) The 1970s ushered the era of Minimum Competency Testing when, in 1976, the State of Florida passed a law requiring high school students to pass a minimum competency test to graduate. The idea of setting standards for a minimum of what a high school graduate should know was seen as a means of holding schools accountable for ensuring all graduates meet certain standards. Many states soon followed suit adopting similar laws, and today, these tests are known as high-stakes tests (Gabbard, 2004).

Entering The Modern Standards-Based Reform Movement

The modern standards-based reform movement was born upon publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983. The terrifying account of public schools depicted in the report included such scarlet prose as “the rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people.” Such descriptions raised the fears of educators, business leaders, government officials and parents alike, setting in motion widespread educational reform. In 1989, President Bush called for an Academic Summit that established six educational goals to be reached by the year 2000. In President Clinton’s 1997 State of the Union address, he called for every state to adopt high national academic standards. By 1999, every state except Iowa had begun to set common academic standards. All of the changes triggered by A Nation at Risk and kindred research reports, culminated in 2002 with the authorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the unparalleled federal participation in education (Gabbard, 2004).

No Child Left Behind drastically affected American public schools and further emphasized the importance of traditional tests. “NCLB, legislation supported equally by Democrats and Republicans and endorsed by corporate leaders, requires states to adhere to federal mandates in exchange for federal funding, primarily in the form of Title 1 money designated for educational services to poor children” (Gabbard, 2004). States are not required to participate in NCLB, but if they don’t, they lose out on millions of dollars in federal aid. Currently forty-nine out of the fifty states have adopted NCLB, with Nebraska the only exception (J. Mueller, personal communication, November 16, 2009). Before NCLB, achievement tests were used to assess what the child knew in order to make appropriate decisions about the readiness of the child to enter educational programs or to learn new concepts, to determine grade placement, to track students with special problems or abilities, and to measure student progress. After NCLB, achievement tests became high-stakes measures with the power to decrease school funding or even to remain open. As a result, preparing for the tests has become the top priority in many classrooms.  In an interview with Steve Jordan, a teacher from Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, who has been teaching in the same district for fifteen years, Mr. Jordan said, “Since NCLB there is a sense of anxiety from the administration that the school’s funding will be pulled at any minute, while in the classroom there is pressure to narrow the curriculum to only what the test covers” (S. Jordan, personal communication, November 5, 2009).


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