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Just Whose Idea Was All This Testing?

The College Entrance Examination Board, founded in 1900, played a huge role. Now called the College Board, it "created the best, most consistent and most influential standards that American education has ever known," New York University educational historian Diane Ravitch wrote in March in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The board's early exams were written and graded by teachers and professors and had no multiple-choice questions. These essay exams, Ravitch wrote, led "everyone who went to high school, whether they were the children of doctors or farmers or factory workers . . . to study mathematics, science, English literature, composition, history and a foreign language, usually Latin."

Many educators who value depth and rigor lament what followed. In 1926, the multiple-choice SAT was introduced as a much faster way of testing college applicants. On Dec. 7, 1941, several members of the board, during a previously scheduled lunch, decided that the outbreak of world war would require faster decisions and less leisurely testing. They eventually canceled the board's old exam format. The SAT ruled.

Essay questions, however, made a comeback in 1955 when Advanced Placement exams began.

The launch of Sputnik, the Soviet space satellite, in 1957 fueled a space race and increased pressure on U.S. schools to show improvement. But rating schools through tests did not advance much until the mid-1970s, when the College Board revealed that average SAT scores had been falling since 1963. Then, in 1983, a national commission declared in the report "A Nation at Risk" that public school standards were too low. Over the next two decades, testing took off.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, several governors argued that they had to test all their students to raise school standards and improve their economies. Among them were Democrats Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Richard W. Riley of South Carolina, who would soon become president and U.S. education secretary, respectively. (Later in the 1990s, Republican Gov. George W. Bush of Texas also was a big proponent of testing.)

Some educators said a better way to improve schools was to spend more on teacher training, salaries and smaller classes. They dwelled on educational inputs; the politicians, on outputs.

The politicians prevailed. In 1988, Congress created the National Assessment Governing Board. It established new standards for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test that has been given to a sampling of students since 1970. In 2002, President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind law. For the first time, it required annual testing of all public school children in certain grades and required states to use results to help rate schools.

The National Education Association and other teacher organizations argue that it is unfair to rate schools through such tests when teachers lack adequate training and pay. In a 2004 essay for the Hoover Digest, Ravitch wrote that the advocates of inputs and the champions of outputs "are in constant tension, with first one and then the other gaining brief advantage."

"How this conflict is resolved," she wrote, "will determine the future of American education."

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