History Repeating

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

Mass parents have been complaining about standardized testing since 1880.

Standardized testing and education reform in the United States are hot topics today — as they have been for nearly 200 years. It may be surprising, but whether you’re pro or con, sides have been taken and the same positions have been argued and recycled for close to two centuries. Everything old is new again.

Reasons for education reform fall into two theories: schools aren’t prepping the country’s young for careers and college the way they should — a reason for the latest flavor in educational reform, Common Core — or they’re failing to educate the young to defeat the country’s potential enemies. The latter was a reason for Gifted & Talented Science and Math programs, considered the solution for making American school children surpass the technological ability of their peers in the Soviet Union, especially after its successful launch of the first satellite, Sputnik, in the late 1950s.

A similar argument was made in 1983, when U. S. Education Secretary Terrel Bell commissioned the study “A Nation At Risk,” which stated: “Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world … while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people.”

This notion that schooling in other countries is superior to that of the United States is akin to what Horace Mann asserted to promote changes in how Massachusetts’ school children were taught in the 1840s: “If the Prussian schoolmaster has better methods of teaching reading, writing, grammar, geography, arithmetic … so that he produces greater and better results, surely, we may copy his modes of teaching these elements without adopting his passive obedience to government or blind adherence to the articles of a church.”

Today, Common Core advocates hold up Japan, Singapore, Australia, and Canada as reasons for adopting the new standards.

“Policymakers can be assured that in adopting the CCSS [Common Core State Standards], they will be setting learning expectations for students that are similar to those set in Singapore in terms of rigor, coherence, and focus,” notes Achieve, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that lobbies for Common Core, on its Website.

In the area of English skills, Achieve states: “Policymakers can be assured that in adopting [Common Core] they will be setting learning expectations for students that are similar to those set by the high-achieving nations of Canada and Australia.”

The Beginning

Historians tend to pinpoint China’s Tang Dynasty, around from the 7th to 10th centuries, as the start of standardized testing, which centered on Confucian teaching and literature, with those passing the exam qualified to become government officials.

In the United States, some East Coast cities required public high school applicants to take written admission tests starting in the 1820s, writes University of Wisconsin Professor William Reese in his book, Testing Wars in the Public Schools: A Forgotten History. The tests focused on reading, writing, math, geography, and history, and required written responses.

Standardized testing as it’s practiced today — given to an entire population of school children — started in Massachusetts in the early 1840s, when Mann, as the Commonwealth’s first secretary of education, implemented a new way of assessing Boston public school children — with a written test. That test would eventually be used throughout the state and the country, notes Reese, an education historian.

Prior to the written test, Boston’s school children, like many around the Bay State, were given oral exams and, as Reese notes, the problem was that each exam had little in common with those at other schools. This caused Mann and his allies to be suspicious of what children really knew.

Other reasons to mistrust oral exams included the fact that grading was entirely at the teacher’s discretion and that school principals often decided which kids took the oral exams, especially when guests or dignitaries were visiting, Reese writes.

“Even back then, schools would shield kids who weren’t strong students,” he said in an interview with baystateparent.

Still, implementation of a new written test, which would become a measure of what kids knew, was a politically charged issue because it took power and influence away from local school principals as to how their students were taught, Reese noted.

As Mann’s fellow 19th century educational reformers believed, “written examinations would … hold teachers and pupils accountable, and provide for incontrovertible evidence about what children actually knew: pupil by pupil, school by school, even district by district.” These are many of the same reasons cited for implementing today’s annual standardized MCAS test or the proposed newer one, the Common Core-aligned PARCC exam.

In the 1880s — nearly 40 years after the first standardized test was given — the cry against testing was heard when Massachusetts parents started making noise.

“Bostonians complained about the ‘incessant examining’ … One … writer accused the ‘examination octopus’ of squeezing every ounce of creativity out of teachers and pupils,” Reese writes.

Cut to 130+ years later when Monty Neill, who leads Jamaica Plain-based FairTest, a group opposed to standardized testing, told baystateparent: “What’s happened is that (standardized) testing has become the central focus of public education. It means there’s more narrowing of the curriculum, so there’s less art, less music, less science, less social studies. School is reduced to test prep.”

Minorities and Standardized Testing’s Future

Another criticism against standardized testing — voiced especially by State Rep. Marjorie Decker (D-Cambridge) — is that it works against minorities and children from low-income households. This, too, is hardly a new complaint.

Back in the 1850s, Edward Loring, one of the administrators of Boston’s standardized tests, noticed that economic standing “and ethnicity influenced student achievement,” Reese writes.

“The child of intelligent parents, growing up in a well-ordered and instructed household, in which grammar and language are correctly used, and the subjects of daily conversation are akin to his school studies, is far better fitted for, and furthered in, those studies, than the child whose home is darkened by the ignorance, and the mental and moral degradation of his parents,” Loring said.

“Horace Mann knew that if you tested schools, the results would eventually be grouped by the racial background of the children,” Reese said.

Related Article: Board of Education Accepts New Standardized Test

Do Anti-Testing Advocates Have a Chance?

Despite their passion and reasoned arguments, those who oppose standardized testing in public schools really don’t stand a chance, Reese said.

“While a lot of testing is going away, it’s not disappearing,” he noted, referring to recent legislation, the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” which passed both houses of Congress and was signed by President Obama last month. The new law replaces President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” law and reduces Washington’s influence on local education.

And, Reese said, “The ethnic and racial breakdown of scores will continue.”

Testing, he predicts, is here to stay.

“Every time someone complained about tests, the promise was always there — ‘We’ll get a better test,’” Reese said.

“The issue isn’t about getting rid of standardized testing. It’s about its proper place in the system and whether they help or hurt and the notion that we should be able to measure what kids are learning. Testing isn’t going away. It’ll take new forms, but it has a kind of staying power, which I don’t see disappearing anytime soon.”