The Education Reform Primer: Our history with standardized testing

The Education Reform Primer: A blog exploring the history of public school education in America

Amid recent controversy over the SAT/ACT’s potential for discrimination against economically disadvantaged students, we wanted to explore just how standardized testing became a part of the U.S. education system in the first place.

Utilized in China for centuries, standardized testing was originally used in connection with government job applications. The examinations tested individuals in six areas, including music, archery and horsemanship, arithmetic, and writing. In later years, standardized tests also included testing on military strategies, civil law, revenue and taxation, agriculture, and geography.

In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, when schools began to educate many more children as they transitioned from working on farms and in factories, teachers began to use standardized tests to test students. Between 1840 and 1875, education evolved into more formal and standardized practices and teachers replaced oral testing with written examinations.

From 1875 through the end of World War I, standardized tests were developed to determine student preparation for college. In 1890, the president of Harvard College proposed a national entrance exam for American colleges. In 1900, the College Entrance Examination Board was established, and one year later, tests were offered throughout the United States in nine subjects. In 1905, Alfred Binet, a psychologist, developed the IQ test as we know it, which was a standardized test of intelligence: the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test.

From 1900 to 1932, various high school tests, vocational tests, and even athletic assessments, were used and statewide testing programs emerged. In 1914, the National Education Association endorsed standardized testing for students. In 1916, the College Board—an organization of American universities and other educational organizations—began development of testing in six subject areas, including assessments such as essays, translation of foreign languages, and written compositions. During World War I, the United States military also used testing to help assign serviceman to jobs during the war.

In 1926, the College Board created the Scholastic Aptitude Test (“SAT”). The test had about 300 questions that tested vocabulary and basic mathematics. Around 1930, the SAT had already morphed into the test we recognize today—with a verbal and math section. (The written portion came much later, in the 2000s.) By the end of World War II, the SAT had become a staple for high school students who intended to attend college in the United States.

In 1929, Everett Franklin Lindquist, an education professor at the University of Iowa, started the first significant statewide testing program for high school students, and by the late 1930s, such tests were available to schools outside Iowa.

These various standardized tests were initially graded manually, and it was not until 1936 that an automatic test scanner was created that used electrical current to pick up marks made by pencils.

In 1959, E.F. Lindquist created the American College Testing (“ACT”) as a competitor test to the SAT.  The ACT included questions about a test-taker’s interests. The ACT also tested math, reading, English skills, and scientific facts and principles. Traditionally, the ACT was more commonly accepted in the Midwest and South, while the East and West Coasts preferred the SAT.

However, students in the United States are tested nearly each year of grade school as well, before even thinking about college applications. In 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was a vehicle for new and increased uses of tests to evaluation programs. Later, largely as a result of the 2001 No Child Left Behind education reform, state-mandated standardized testing to assess student performance was expanded in the United States.

While testing has been a frequently-utilized measure of what has been learned and retained, most schools and colleges consider far more than those test results. In fact, there are several schools that no longer require test scores as part of a student’s application, instead examining their larger academic history – from grades and athletics, to community involvement and internships.