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.