Testing fights are nothing new

Testing controversies didn’t start with No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top, writes William J. Reese, an education history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in the New York Times. “Members of the Boston School Committee fired the first shots in the testing wars in the summer of 1845.”

Many Bostonians smugly assumed that their well-funded public schools were the nation’s best.

. . . Citizens were in for a shock. For the first time, examiners gave the highest grammar school classes a common written test, conceived by a few political activists who wanted precise measurements of school achievement. The examiners tested 530 pupils — the cream of the crop below high school. Most flunked. Critics immediately accused the examiners of injecting politics into the schools and demeaning both teachers and pupils.

In 1837, education reformer Horace Mann, the “father of the common school,” became secretary of the newly created Massachusetts Board of Education, which was “part of the Whig Party’s effort to centralize authority and make schools modern and accountable,”  writes Reese. “After a fact-finding trip abroad, Mann claimed in 1844 in a nationally publicized report that Prussia’s schools were more child-friendly and superior to America’s.” (Prussia was the Finland of the mid-19th century!)

Mann’s friend Samuel Gridley Howe, was elected to the School Committee. As a member of the examining committee, he insisted on written rather than oral tests.

His committee arrived at Boston’s grammar schools with preprinted questions, which angered the masters and terrified students. Pupils had one hour to write down their answers on each subject to questions drawn from assigned textbooks.

Only 30 percent passed. It turned out that students had “memorized material they often did not understand,” Reese writes.

 The examiners believed that the teacher made the school, a guiding assumption in the emerging ethos of testing. Tests, they said, would identify the many teachers who emphasized rote instruction, not understanding. They named the worst ones and called for their removal.

. . . Anticipating an angry reaction from parents, Mann told Howe to deflect criticism from the examiners by blaming the masters for low scores. While the School Committee fired a few head teachers, parents nevertheless accused Howe of deliberately embarrassing the pupils and bounced him out of office in the next election.

Testing continued. Examiners caught one master leaking questions to students. They criticized a school for black students for low expectations and performance. They worried about how to evaluate school quality.

 “Comparison of schools cannot be just,” the chairman of the examining committee wrote in 1850, “while the subjects of instruction are so differently situated as to fire-side influence, and subjected to the draw-backs inseparable from place of birth, of age, of residence, and many other adverse circumstances.”

The history is “eerily familiar,” writes Reese, author of Testing Wars in the Public Schools: A Forgotten History.

About Joanne


  1. Miller Smith says:

    Go to the Common Core test example (there are many more there) called PARCC (http://www.parcconline.org/samples/english-language-artsliteracy/grade-10-ebsr-literary-analysis-task), which the State of Maryland intends to use. Read the passage at the bottom of the item first and then answer the item.

    An overwhelming number of teachers in my school, when given the handout and passage at a faculty meeting, were upset to the point of shock and outrage when they read the passage and questions. Only a few teachers found the passage enjoyable and answered the question with ease. The overwhelming majority could not answer the questions correctly and proclaimed they could not understand the passage. Most had never seen a work of this kind and many had never heard of this work.

    The reason there is so much consternation over these new tests is the teachers are not able to pass them…and they cannot teach students to pass the tests. We need a new class of teachers for the students.

    Can we afford those higher quality teachers?

    • GoogleMaster says:

      I read the passage and answered the questions correctly. At first reading, I thought the first question must be a trick because the answer is too obvious.

      I am dismayed that there are teachers who not only cannot understand the passage but also have never heard of the story of Daedalus and Icarus, much less read any poetry such as this. I think I must have first encountered this story at about age 9 to 12, in a watered-down translation for children, of course, but still retaining the meaning and tone of the original.

      My gosh, it’s not as if we’re asking the teachers to read the original Latin!

      FWIW, I’m not a teacher, nor a parent, nor even an English major, but an engineer educated in the 1970s and 1980s and raised on the World Book Encyclopedia and the Childcraft Library.

      • I was able to answer it correctly before I read the passage. Only one answer has three supporting quotes. And, of course, I know the story. I first read it in a book of myths and legends when I was in second or third grade.

        What did Perdix invent that so pissed off Daedelus?

        • Mark Roulo says:

          Hi Joanne,


          “I was able to answer it correctly before I read the passage. Only one answer has three supporting quotes. And, of course, I know the story.”


          Well that makes two of us, but I’m also not quite sure what to conclude. Do you and I (and others) have “good test taking skills?” Or could we do this because of we already knew the story (that helps if one isn’t going to read the passage, obviously)? But in either case, *HOW* do you teach 10th graders to get the right answer here? Is it taught as a logic puzzle (which answer has three supporting points … that has to be the one)? I don’t think that english/literature teachers are trying to do this. You can’t teach enough background material to cover everything … it is quite conceivable that there would be a passage on a story neither of us already knew.


          I am quite certain that I was not explicitly taught how to deal with test questions like this in high school (or K-8 before that). So *WHAT* is this testing and *HOW* is it supposed to be taught?

          • lightly seasoned says:

            It’s testing main idea and supporting details — which is reading comprehension. Pretty basic fundamentals –the reading material is far more sophisticated than we’re used to seeing on mandated tests, however. I think my kids had to work with an article about sneakers this year.

        • palisadesk says:

          It’s been awhile since I read Ovid in grad school (in Latin yet), but Perdix was supposed to have been a very inventive lad. Just what in particular ticked off his uncle Dedalus I don’t recall, but Perdix supposedly invented the saw, the potter’s wheel and the compass device for drawing circles.

          Many schools still use Edith Hamilton’s mythology book as assigned reading; we read it in seventh or eighth grade but my nephews have had it as a course requirement more recently — in high school though IIRC.