Happy Birthday — Standardized Testing

According to The Writer’s Almanac of June 17, 2019, the first standardized tests were administered by the College Board on this day in 1901. As both a student and educator, I thought the background of this event was so interesting, I’m going to quote the Almanac’s account in its entirety —

Before standardized tests, many universities had their own college entrance exams, and prospective students were required to come to campus for a week or more to take exams. Since each college’s exam demanded a different set of knowledge, high schools offered separate instruction for students based on which colleges they hoped to attend. Some colleges accepted applicants based on how well previous graduates of the same high school were doing at the college. Other colleges sent faculty to visit high schools, and if the high school met their criteria, then they would admit any graduate of that school. It was a confusing system, and as more Americans began to attend college, it was no longer practical. Between 1890 and 1924, the number of college students grew five times faster than the growth of the general population. In 1885, the principal of a prestigious boarding school wrote to the National Education Association asking them to reform the system. It took 15 years of discussion, committees, and arguments, but the College Board was finally formed in 1900. Its founders hoped to simplify curricula at the high schools, and make a college education accessible to a wider pool of applicants.

Beginning today and throughout this week in 1901, the first standardized college entrance exams were given to 973 students at 67 locations (plus two more in Europe). More than a third of the students were from New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Students were tested in English, French, German, Latin, Greek, history, mathematics, chemistry, and physics. The tests were essays, not multiple choice, read by a team of experts in each subject. The experts met at tables in the library of Columbia University, and the essays were graded as Excellent, Good, Doubtful, Poor, or Very Poor. Columbia was one of the main forces behind the conversion to standardized testing — of the 973 applicants, 758 were applying to either Columbia or its affiliate Barnard.

For the next couple of decades, the tests were in use but were not widely accepted. Only a small fraction of incoming freshmen took standardized tests, and there were only 10 colleges that admitted all of their students based on the test — some colleges looked at the test, but also provided their own entrance exams, and happily admitted students of any qualifications if their parents were donors.

The early tests were considered “achievement” tests because they tested for students’ proficiency in certain subjects. A couple of decades later, the College Board switched to “aptitude” tests, intended to measure intelligence. There were mixed motives for this change. On the surface, it made college admittance more fair and accessible to students whose high schools didn’t teach ancient Greek or prepare students specifically for college. But the biggest proponents of intelligence testing were college officials who were concerned about the rapid influx of immigrants — especially Eastern European Jews — to their student body. A Columbia University dean worried that the high numbers of recent immigrants and their children would make the school “socially uninviting to students who come from homes of refinement,” and its president described the 1917 freshman class as “depressing in the extreme,” lamenting the absence of “boys of old American stock.” These college officials believed that immigrants had less innate intelligence than old-blooded Americans, and hoped that they would score lower on aptitude tests, which would give the schools an excuse to admit fewer of them.

In 1925, the College Board began to use a new, multiple-choice test, designed by a Princeton psychology professor named Carl Brigham, who had modeled it on his work with Army intelligence tests. This new test was known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test. The first SAT was taken in 1926. These days, more than 2 million students take the SAT each year.

And that’s how we got to where we are today. You can listen to the complete Writer’s Almanac for June 17 at https://www.spreaker.com/user/prairehomeproductions/the-writers-almanac-for-june-17-2019.

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