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History of Standardized Testing in the United States

Explore more than 150 years of assessment student achievement.
Published: June 25, 2020

1838-1890 | Standardized Testing Arrives in American Schools


The Beginning

American educators begin articulating ideas that would soon be translated into the formal assessment of student achievement.

Shifting Views on Education and Testing

Several main currents in the history of American educational testing are established. Formal written tests begins to replace oral examinations administered by teachers and schools at roughly the same time as schools change their mission from servicing the elite to educating the masses.
Pre-Civil War

Mandated Written Examinations

Schools also use externally mandated written examinations to assess student progress in specific curricular areas and to aid in a variety of administrative and policy decisions.
1875 to the End of World War I

American Education on the Forefront

The development and administration of a range of new testing instruments, from measuring mental ability, to attempting to assess how well students were prepared for college, brought to the forefront several critical issues related to testing and tbe broader goals of American education.

College Entrance Exams Proposed

Harvard President Charles William Eliot proposes a cooperative system of common entrance examinations that would be acceptable to colleges and professional schools throughout the country, in lieu of the separate examinations given by each school.

1900-1916 | Testing Practices and Methods Mature


College Entrance Examinations Become Common

The College Entrance Examination Board is established, and in 1901, the first examinations are administered around the country in nine subjects.

Tests and Testing Programs Proliferate

1,300 achievement tests are on the market, compared to about 400 tests of “mental capacities." 92 High school tests, vocational tests, assessments of athletic ability, and a variety of miscellaneous tests are developed to supplement the intelligence tests, and statewide testing programs become more common.

Quantifying Intelligence Becomes a Focus

French psychologist Alfred Binet begins developing a standardized test of intelligence, work that would eventually be incorporated into a version of the modern IQ test, dubbed the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test.
World War I

The US Military Begins Testing for Aptitude

Standardized testing is standard practice: aptitude quizzes called Army Mental Tests are conducted to assign US servicemen jobs during the war effort.

Intelligence Testing Matures

Stanford Professor Lewis Terman marks the beginning of large-scale individual intelligence testing in characteristics of the Binet-Simon tradition.

NEA Endorsement

The National Education Association endorses the kind of standardized testing that Rice had been urging for two decades. The timing was exquisite: on one front, there was the “push” of new technology that promised to be valuable to testing, and on the other, a heightened “pull” for methods to bring order to the chaotic schools.
Between 1908 and 1916

New Standards in Achievement Testing

Edward Thorndike and his students at Columbia University developed standardized achievement tests in arithmetic, handwriting, spelling, drawing, reading, and language ability.

Standardized Testing Becomes More Comprehensive and Varied

The College Board begins to develop comprehensive examinations in six subjects. These examinations include performance types of assessment such as essay questions, sight translation of foreign languages, and written compositions.

1917-1939 | Interest in Standardized Testing Ignites Nationwide


Adoption into US Military Service

Lewis Terman and a group of colleagues are recruited by the American Psychological Association to help the Army develop group intelligence tests and a group intelligence scale. Army testing during World War I ignites the most rapid expansion of the school testing movement.

Intelligence Testing Becomes Mainstream

6,500 children are given the Stanford-Binet, as well as a new test written by Arthur Otis (one of Lewis Terman’s students who would eventually be credited with the invention of the multiple-choice format). Oakland, California, was the site of one of the first attempts at large-scale intelligence testing of students. By 1918, there are well over 100 standardized tests, developed by different researchers to measure achievement in the principal elementary and secondary school subjects.
Fall of 1920

Standardized Testing Sweeps the Nation

The World Book publishes nearly half a million tests, and by 1930, Terman's intelligence and achievement tests (the latter published as the Stanford Achievement Test) has combined sales of some 2 million copies per year.

The Risks of Overuse of Standardized Testing Become Apparent

John Dewey laments the victory of the testers and quantifiers with these words: “Our mechanical, industrialized civilization is concerned with averages, with percents. The mental habit which reflects this social scene subordinates education and social arrangements based on averaged gross inferiorities and superiorities.”

Measures of Achievement Become Entwined with Decision-Making

A U.S. Bureau of Education Survey shows that intelligence and achievement tests are increasingly used to classify students.

Scholastic Aptitude Tests Are Adopted Nationally

The first SAT tests are administered. Founded as the Scholastic Aptitude Test by the College Board, a nonprofit group of universities and other educational organizations, the original test lasted 90 minutes and consisted of 315 questions testing knowledge of vocabulary and basic math. It even including an early iteration of the famed fill-in-the-blank analogies (e.g., blue:sky::____:grass). The test grew and by 1930, assumed its now familiar form with separate verbal and math tests.

Support for Standardized Testing Begins to Waver

The University of Iowa initiates the first major statewide testing program for high school students, directed by E.F. Lindquist. By 1930 multiple-choice tests are firmly entrenched in the schools. Not surprisingly, the rapid spread of multiple choice tests kindled debate about their drawbacks. Critics accused them of encouraging memorization and guessing, of representing “reactionary ideals” of instruction, but to no avail. Efficiency and ‘‘objectivity’ won out.

Standardization Gets a Boost from Computerization

High-speed computing is first applied to testing. Electronic data processing equipment was used to process massive numbers of tests. One report showed that the cost of administering the Strong Inventory of Vocational Interests dropped from $5 per test to $.50 per test as a result of the computer.

Multiple States Adopt The Iowa Assessments

The first automatic test scanner is developed, a rudimentary computer called the IBM 805. It remained largely unchanged (save the occasional tweak) until 2005, when the analogies are done away with and a writing section was added. By the late 1930s, Iowa tests are being made available to schools outside the State.

1958-Present | Enter the Modern Era of Standardized Testing


Iowa Assessments are Computerized

Iowa also introduces computerization to the scoring of tests and production of reports to schools.

Overuse, and Conflation, of Achievement Testing Crystalizes

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act in particular opens the way for new and increased uses of norm-referenced tests to evaluate programs. In the 21st century, however, the SAT and the ACT are just part of a gauntlet of tests students may face before reaching college. The College Board also offers SAT II tests, designed for individual subjects ranging from biology to geography. The marathon four-hour Advanced Placement examinations — which some universities accept for students who want to opt out of introductory college-level classes — remain popular. Nearly 350,000 took the U.S. history AP test last year, the most popular subject test offered. There's also the PSAT, taken in the junior year as preparation for the full-blown SAT and as an assessment for the coveted National Merit Scholarships.

Standardized Testing Becomes the Measure For All Things

No Child Left Behind education reform is its expansion of state-mandated standardized testing as means of assessing school performance. Now most students are tested each year of grade school as well. Testing of students in the United States is now 150 years old.

Modern Ideals and Attempts at Reform

Every Student Succeeds Act is passed. ESSA takes steps to reduce standardized testing, and decouples testing and high-stakes decision making. Both are major improvements over No Child Left Behind’s one-size-fits-all approach to accountability, and the U.S. Department of Education’s criteria for granting waivers to the law. Statewide assessments are still required for grades 3-8 and once in high school.

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