Standardized education testing

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(Host) Henry Chauncey was one of the most important figures of the last century in the development of standardized tests. Commentator Allen Gilbert reflects on the uses of standardized tests as we enter the 21st century. He wonders if the massive test effort of the new federal No Child Left Behind Act will succeed in benefiting kids.

(Gilbert) It is hard to underestimate the influence of Henry Chauncey, the founder of the Educational Testing Service. Chauncey died last month in Shelburne. He was 97. Chauncey oversaw the transformation of college admissions through the use of standardized tests, notably the SAT. With the start-up of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, with its grade-by-grade testing, this is a good time to reflect on the purposes and uses of standardized tests.

The first extensive use of tests to evaluate individuals’ skills and aptitudes came during World War I. The Army needed a way to quickly sort through recruits and identify officer candidates. Harvard professor Robert Yerkes offered to administer an IQ test, which had first been developed about a dozen years before. Yerkes tested nearly 2 million recruits, and the era of standardized testing was born.

After World War I, the Army’s test was reshaped for non-military use. It became the SAT, and was used by colleges both experimentally and to identify students worthy of small scholarships. And then, in the 1930s, Harvard’s young president, James Bryant Conant, wanted to change his university’s admissions policies. Conant believed in a democracy of opportunity, and he assigned Henry Chauncey – then a young Harvard dean – the task of assuring that merit, and not socio-economic background, was the basis for Harvard admission. The tool that Chauncey refined to assure fairer competition was the SAT.

Today, hundreds of colleges across the country rely on the SAT to give them an idea of how a student may fare in his or her first year of college. The SAT is a high-stakes test in the sense that a poor score can keep a student from getting admitted to some schools. But rarely are SAT scores the sole criterion by which a student is accepted or rejected at a school.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act is the country’s latest plunge into comprehensive standardized testing. Under this law, every child in grades 2 through 10 will be tested annually in key subjects. If student scores in a particular school don’t improve year by year, until students have reached a set level of proficiency, the school will be labeled a failing school. Sanctions will be imposed. Students will be given the opportunity to get outside academic help, and in many cases to enroll in another school.

It is ironic that the federal government has imposed this massive test mandate on the states, since Washington provides only a tiny slice of public education funds. And the law actually punishes states like Vermont that have already set high standards. That doesn’t seem wise.

Tests should be used to identify a school’s strengths and weaknesses. Test results should yield information that helps a school to improve its curriculum. Tests shouldn’t be used as sledgehammers to force schools to close – unless we know for sure that there is something about the school itself that is failing kids.

Sorting soldiers, sorting students, and now sorting schools. We’ve applied our fascination with standardized tests in different ways. One can only hope that the latest effort really does benefit kids.

This is Allen Gilbert.

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