When Frederick J. Kelly invented the multiple-choice test in 1914, he was addressing a national crisis. The ranks of students attending secondary school had swollen from 200,000 in 1890 to more than 1.5 millionas immigrants streamed onto American shores, and as new laws made two years of high school compulsory for everyone and not simply a desirable option for the college bound. World War I added to the problem, creating a teacher shortage with men fighting abroad and women working in factories at home.
The country needed to process students quickly and efficiently. If Henry Ford could turn out Model Ts “for the great multitude,” surely there was an equivalent way, Kelly wrote in his dissertation at Kansas State Teachers College, to streamline schooling. What he came up with was the Kansas Silent Reading Test, sometimes called the “item-response” or “bubble” test.
Today, American public school students are still taking versions of Kelly’s test. End-of-grade exams, required under the No Child Left Behind law, are modeled after his idea: Fill in the circles. There is only one right answer. Stop when time is called.
The Obama administration is currently undertaking an important overhaul of key parts of No Child Left Behind, the George W. Bush administration’s signature education law. Perhaps that reform needs to go even further. Antiquated standardized tests are still serving as the backbone for measuring achievement. Our students can’t escape Kelly’s century-old invention.
We often forget that there is nothing fixed or natural about “school” but that, like all institutions, it evolves in response to historical circumstances. In the case of standardized testing, the multiple-choice exam has had an impact far beyond the crisis that inspired it, and a reach and application far beyond what its inventor intended. From his papers at the University of Idaho, it is clear that Kelly didn’t mean for standardized testing to become so widespread. Although he argued for uniform ways of judging achievement, he also indicated that his Kansas Silent Reading Test was intended to measure “lower-order thinking” among the masses (which were then called the “lower orders”). But this form of testing is, of course, now the gold standard for just about everything, from No Child Left Behind tests to college entrance exams to tests for graduate and professional schools.
Once World War I was over, Kelly himself began to ardently champion a different direction for educational reform, a model of liberal, integrated, problem-based learning. In his inaugural address as University of Idaho president in 1928, he argued for expansive changes almost diametrically opposite to his early advocacy of standardized testing. “College is a place to learn how to educate oneself rather than a place in which to be educated,” he insisted.
Too late. By then, the College Entrance Examination Board had adopted Kelly’s test as the basis for its Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). Business schools and schools of education were using item-response testing as the new metric for measuring success. Kelly’s faculty was furious that the inventor of the bubble test now advocated a different course, and he was asked to step down as president barely two years later.