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Standardized Tests: From Mann to Modern Day

WRITTEN BY: Bella Coyne

“Here at the Princeton Review, we’ve long said that taking the SAT only masters you on taking the SAT!” squeaks my Youtube. I sigh, because I’ve seen this commercial a dozen times. And though it’s rather annoying, seeing it umpteen times got me thinking…maybe they’re right.

Most students preparing for higher education will tell you—taking a standardized test is stressful. It’s usually not enough to simply take it; you have to understand how the test is scored, the best strategies for managing time, the specific kind of answers looked for, and more. Preparing for the ACT or SAT is not studying everything you’ve learned in the past twelve years of your life. It’s studying the system. So if all these tests score you on is your ability to test-take, should they be considered the baseline for your intelligence? Why is it that this three- or four-digit-number is one of the biggest factors considered in accepting you to a college? And how did the standardized test come about? Buckle up. We’re going to go back to 1843 to find out.

Until then, examinations in American schools were conducted orally. Ranging anywhere from half an hour to two hours, one or two students would sit in a private room with their teacher, answering questions on what they’d learned in a given period of time. For example: imagine sitting across from your teacher. They would ask you, How many amendments were originally included in the Bill of Rights? And not only did you have to answer correctly (twelve), but you also had to display what the teacher deemed proper body language, overcome your nervousness to answer how the teacher thought was sufficient, use enough of your vocabulary that the teacher thought you were smart enough…see the problem? This system was subjective. It favored children from families who had the resources to educate them consistently — meaning they could stay for the whole term, and not skip class during planting and harvesting on their families’ farms. It favored children who spoke English fluently. It favored children with greater social skills, better oral memory, stronger personalities. And perhaps most importantly, due to its subjectivity, it allowed for incompetent teachers. While oral examining was efficient to some extent, it was flawed enough to draw the attention of Horace Mann, Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education.

Mann traveled to Europe in 1843, visiting schools and learning new techniques and methods of teaching. Among his goals for his trip were to meet Charles Dickens — which he did! — and visit what he considered “normal schools”, schools that offered universal education and standardized methods to all of its students. When visiting the University of Berlin, he learned of their teaching certifications and written examinations. This, he thought, could be the key to improving the education system. Returning home, he wrote:

“When the oral method is adopted, none but those personally present at the examination can have any accurate or valuable idea of appearance of the school…Not so, however, when the examination is by printed questions and written answers. A transcript, a sort of Daguerreotype likeness, as it were, of the state and condition of the pupils’ minds, is taken and carried away, for general inspection.”

In English, this means he thought oral tests were completely subjective. "None but those present..." means that it was entirely up to the teachers to determine what they thought the school should represent. By "Daguerreotype likeness", he's talking about the first widely-used means of photography. He believed in identical tests that clearly reflected the curriculum, the way a photo reflects a person.

Something important to note: Mann never intended to use the tests to say "These pupils are dumb". He wanted them to say "Here's how well our schoolmasters are teaching". These tests would be records that reflected the flaws of the system, and by viewing them, they could determine the weak links in their schools and…well…eliminate them. And when these first tests were administered in 1845, they revealed a serious lack of knowledge.

Unfortunately, in an effort to maintain objectivity, the tests were crafted by examiners Mann appointed. They weren’t shown to the local schoolmasters before being implemented. The teachers, seeing the tests after they were completed and scored, protested that they didn’t contain information that was actually being taught. Here's basically how it went.

Local Teachers: "Hey, um, we noticed that you didn't put any of the stuff we actually teach on those tests."

Board of Educators: "What? Huh? We can't hear you over the sound of your failure! You're fired."

True story. And by the early 1870’s, schools had mandated written examinations. The only problem was, they were externally mandated, meaning they were still being curated by outsourced educators. These tests didn’t reflect what was specifically being taught in each school. Once again, it presented a disadvantage. The students were now being tested on how well they knew what the overarching Board of Education thought they should. But since the Board didn’t directly look into the individual curriculum of each school, the students may or may not have even learned the material on those tests. Thus was born the strategy of learning how to take the tests, not necessarily what is on them.

Enter Charles William Eliot: the man to whom we owe the greatness of Harvard University today. After graduating in the mid 1850’s, he was kept on at what was then Harvard College as an assistant professor. He was a brilliant academic with a mind for reform, publishing journals and conducting research on the best ways to educate the future America. In 1863, when Harvard did not renew his position as assistant professor, he decided to take a very Horace-Mann-like trip to Europe. Like Mann, Eliot knew there were better ways to run a school, and he knew he would discover those ways in Europe.

In 1869, while professoring at the new Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he wrote an essay for the Atlantic Journal, entitled “The New Education”. (We'd invite you to read it in its entirety, if you can spare the time; it’s remarkable.) In it, he wrote:

“Freedom is responsibility….The American people are fighting the wilderness, physical and moral, on the one hand, and on the other are struggling to work out the awful problem of self-government. For this fight they must be trained and armed. No thoughtful American in active life reaches manhood without painfully realizing the deficiencies and shortcomings of his own early training.”

I LOVE this quote -- so much, in fact, that I've actually written this down and hung it above my desk. This is the government version of growing up and realizing your parents are human. Let me explain what this means.

What Eliot means here is, as we grow into ourselves as a nation, we have to step into our freedom. Doing so means we search for where we've gone wrong and use our voices to fix it. With a self-government, we cannot have freedom without responsibility; they go hand-in-hand. Through our freedom of speech, we have a responsibility to speak what is right. Through our responsibility as Americans, we must use our freedom well and never take it for granted. It's also beautiful to consider that America was a little tiny baby when this was written -- barely 100 years old!

The flaw that Charles Eliot recognized was that entrance exams to colleges weren’t standardized, which meant they were subjective, and very limiting. So in implementing them, he opened Harvard's doors to students of different backgrounds and means. To read a full history of how Charles Eliot helped shape Harvard University into what it is today, click here!

Skipping ahead to today, students of all ages take a standardized test each year, designed to measure how well they’re progressing compared to their peers. Each state has their own version and their own academic standards. 21 states actually require that high school juniors take either the ACT or the SAT, and even if it isn’t required, it’s highly encouraged. Until 2020, colleges required that applicants present ACT or SAT score in order to be considered – but in light of the viral situation, many colleges have become test-optional. In light of this, a 2021 census by Forbes showed that the number of students taking the ACT has dropped by 22 percent. For a little perspective: if, say, 10 students had taken the ACT, that would mean about 2 students stopped taking the test. No biggie.

But there weren’t 10 students taking the ACT in 2020. There were 1.7 million. That means that in 2021, roughly 375,000 less students took the test, bringing the number of American students testing down to about 1.3 million. This statistic begs the question: why are the numbers dropping?

To answer this, we need to understand why the ACT is valuable today. According to the ACT “Why Take?” student resource, the ACT is “​​a complete package of services to help you get ready for life beyond high school”. When you take the test, you get a comprehensive guide to your scores, providing individual data on your performance. It tells you the areas in which you performed well, even displaying the exact amount of answers you got correct. It shows you how you compare with other students in your state and across the country, which can be a valuable tool in highlighting where you succeed – and where there’s room for improvement. It can be a kind of study guide. But on the other hand, are those scores relevant? According to the Princeton Review, “The purpose of the ACT test is to measure a high school student's readiness for college, and provide colleges with one common data point that can be used to compare all applicants.” If curriculum varies between schools, how can these tests accurately compare you to others? For example, there are two excellent schools in my area. One focuses heavily on athletics – students have graduated with scholarships to Division I schools, or gained acceptance to institutions like West Point and Vanderbilt. The other focuses heavily on academics – students have pursued degrees at Ivy League schools, or participated in activities like college mock trial. They are both highly successful schools, but clearly emphasize different – but extremely important – things.

Perhaps the reason the numbers of testers are dropping is because people are beginning to look around at their own schools and realize exactly that! Not everyone is smart in the same way. Howard Gardner, developmental psychologist and professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard, developed a theory he calls the 7 Types of Intelligence. His idea, first introduced in 1983, says that because not everyone thinks the same way, everyone processes and excels at different areas of cognition and activity – basically, the reason that I can read Shakespeare for fun and you can perform brain surgery. It’s a fascinating theory, and one that we think holds a lot of weight when considering standardized testing (and people in general). To learn about the 7 types of intelligence, we invite you to click here! Or finally, maybe less students are taking these tests because they aren’t seeing college as the goal. Mike Rowe, host of the show Dirty Jobs and trade school advocate, would argue that the typical college experience is not necessary to be a highly successful human. "Over the last 30 years, America has convinced itself that the best path for the most people is an expensive, four-year degree," writes Mike. "Pop culture has glorified the 'corner office job' while unintentionally belittling the jobs that helped build the corner office. As a result, our society has devalued any other path to success and happiness." (To learn about his foundation, Mike Rowe Works, and how he feels about the importance of encouraging trade schools and vocations, visit his website here.) We were lucky enough to interview him for Season Three, so stay tuned for when he shares his wisdom with us.

Maybe kids are seeing that these tests don’t really measure their success and are choosing to take a different route into adulthood. But, standardized testing affects every student differently, and everyone has their own opinions on them. (It’s 2022. Everyone has their own opinions on everything.) We’ll leave you here, with all of these questions, that we invite you to ponder. Consider the reason these tests were originally created and the way the public responded. Consider Gardener’s theory and your own experience with the ACT or SAT. Do you think these should still be the way we compare one child’s intelligence and capability to another’s? Should we even be comparing them at all?

Maybe what we should do instead is sit and have a conversation with a student. We just might find that taking the time to listen is the best test of all.

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