Has Standardized Testing Affected Education?

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Standardized tests have been an integral part of the American education system since the mid-19th century. Current examples of standardized tests include the Stanford Achievement Test, which is used to assess students in K-12; the ACT college entrance examination; and the United States Medical Licensing Examination, which is used to license physicians. These tests are characterized by the uniformity of the content, administration conditions, and scoring. Though this form of assessment has been subject to changes, one aspect of educational standardized testing that has remained constant throughout the course of its history is its ability to remain at the center of controversy and debate. The role, effectiveness, and intent of standardized testing have always been questioned—whether an instrument attempts to assess student competency or potential or to measure effectiveness of instruction and administration, especially when connected to a reform effort.

Beginnings of Standardized Testing in the United States

In the mid- to late 1800s, cities in the United States grew at a rapid pace. Contributing to this growth was a large influx of immigrants. To educate and assimilate the growing populace, states established universal schooling. As the costs of this public education increased, the pressure to show that the money was a wise investment also increased. The desire for accountability contributed to the growth of standardized testing in America. In Massachusetts, for example, rapid growth meant that school supervisors could no longer administer oral examinations to students. Horace Mann, then secretary of the Board of Education of Massachusetts, replaced oral examinations with a standardized, written examination. From the very beginning, the written test faced criticism in that the content tested was narrow and covered the basic subject areas, whereas the objective of the schools was to provide a comprehensive education. In addition, the results of the written examination were designed to measure student achievement but were also used to make comparisons among schools and to drive reform. (Wiggins, 1998)

Initial testing in schools measured student achievement in subject areas. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, testing development focused on measuring mental capacity, that is, examinees' potential for learning. The trend toward intelligence testing and departure from achievement testing during this period might be in part due to the lack of any effect of educational reforms on the improvement of achievement test scores. Administrators looked to the innate ability of the students (i.e., intelligence) for answers to low student achievement.

In France at the turn of the 20th century, Alfred Binet, working with Theodore Simon, developed psychological methods to measure the mental ability of students. Their work resulted in the Binet-Simon test, which formed the basis of mental testing in America. Binet and Simon created the test for the specific purpose of identification of students with mental challenges who might benefit from special training. The test required the student to complete a set of short tasks related to everyday life. Though the test assigned a single, age-based score, ...
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