Testing Wars in the Public Schools: A Forgotten History

Many of today’s reform critics see standardized testing as education’s greatest evil, arguing that it forces a dull, routinized and stifling learning culture. However, in this new book by William J. Reese, a professor of educational-policy studies and history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, we learn that pen-and-paper exams were, in fact, created in order to reform an uncreative and stifling system—one characterized by testing via “public exhibitions” of well-rehearsed oratories and parades. Reese centers his story on how education reformers Horace Mann (Massachusetts’s first secretary of education) and Samuel Gridley Howe (a member of the state’s School Committee) fought tooth and nail to bring about this transformation. In 1845, the School Committee issued the first written test at Boston’s grammar schools and towns outside of Boston—and the results were abysmal. Nearly half of the test questions were left unanswered, resulting in extremely low average scores: The highest scoring subject was grammar with 39 percent; history reaped an embarrassing 26 percent. (Unfortunately for Howe, parents blamed Howe for this miserable showing and voted him out at the next election.) More than a century and a half later, the testing wars continue. Indeed, Howe’s fate may be on the minds of officials who fret about the failure rate that is apt to follow the new Common Core–aligned assessments. The rest of us, however, should at least understand that these issues aren’t new.

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