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October 30, 2002 HOOVER DIGEST » 2002 NO. 4 » EDUCATION
A Brief History of Testing and Accountability
by Diane Ravitch How to improve our public schools? Many policymakers argue that we can start by holding students, teachers, schools, and school districts accountable for student performance. This approach may sound perfectly reasonable—but it has the education profession up in arms. By Hoover fellow Diane Ravitch.
Nowadays, one thinks of testing and accountability as twins in
education; tests, it is assumed, produce the data on which accountability for results are based. A survey of the history of American education, however, reveals that although testing has been a staple in American public education since the nineteenth century, the idea of accountability—holding not only students but teachers, schools, even school districts accountable for student performance—is a more contemporary invention. A long-standing and fundamental conflict between the education profession and laypeople as to the purpose and uses of testing may explain why accountability does not share testing’s long pedigree. It may also help to explain much of the controversy that surrounds testing and accountability in our schools today. Nineteenth-century schools tested their students to see if they had mastered what they were taught, and students who didn’t pass the tests were “left back.” Schoolteachers in the nineteenth century were often required to pass a test of their knowledge and could be interviewed by members of the local school board (which usually included a member of the clergy) to make sure they harbored no unconventional views or unusual religious beliefs. But once they were accepted for service, teachers faced no more tests of their suitability or capacity. If students failed to learn, it was the students’ fault. High school in those days was generally understood to be for those who could handle the work; at the end of the nineteenth century, this meant fewer than one of every ten adolescents. The even smaller number of students who wanted to go to college had to prepare themselves for collegelevel work. Although many colleges at the time accepted anyone who applied, the most prestigious, such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, required students to pass specific admission examinations. In 1900, following complaints from school principals and headmasters about the difficulty of preparing students for different examinations for different colleges, the College Entrance Examination Board was created to prepare a single test for college admission. The “College Boards,” as they became known, published syllabi in different subjects; teachers taught the syllabus prepared for their subject, and students were examined on whether they had mastered it. In the early years of the twentieth century, after the field of educational psychology was established, the design and administration of testing began to change. As a new discipline, educational psychology found a home in the new colleges of education, and most psychologists of education became engaged in the reform of educational testing.
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although testing was regularly used in the schools. PUSHING FOR ACCOUNTABILITY Interest in accountability may be traced to the landmark 1966 report Equality of Educational Opportunity. http://www. Thus.hoover. and reform. sociologist James Coleman. The study was significant for many reasons. Progressivism gained ideological dominance of the profession in the 1930s and 1940s because of its association with progress. But although he applied rigorous scientific methods in order to perfect tests as a measure of academic performance. These social promotion advocates insisted that schools should put less emphasis on subject matter. The spread of social promotion meant that students would not be held accountable for their performance in school. As these Progressive ideas took hold. But at another level. which followed the authors’ decision to examine how school resources affected achievement. and parents started to conclude that many of the problems were structural consequences of the bureaucratic (read: professional) system of public education and could only be addressed by market competition or structural changes. was intended to strengthen the profession. there was no belief within the profession that tests should be used to hold anyone accountable. leaving noneducators with little reason to become involved in the operation of public schools. Written as a study to compare the distribution of resources and opportunities among children of different races. facilitated instead by the profession’s belief that the practice of education was strictly a professional matter that need not involve members of the public other than as taxpayers. the testing movement evolved as an integral part of the Progressive education movement. or outcomes. schools were encouraged to promote children each year regardless of their performance—a practice that came to be known as social promotion. it was intended to keep young people in school and out of the job market. and grades and more emphasis on children’s social adjustment. discipline. social promotion was championed by Progressive educators who were concerned about the effects of retention and failure on the psychological wellbeing of the child. In the wake of this report—although professional educators continued to believe that any inadequacies in the schools could be resolved with additional resources—policymakers. Like other Progressives of his time. Professional educators embraced testing because it seemed to place education on a scientific plane. And this turnaround happened almost entirely without public participation. Thorndike had little interest in using them for purposes of accountability. where decisions could be made on a professional basis and could withstand the entreaties of parents. science. Thorndike of Teachers College. the Coleman report also examined differences in achievement scores. as well as its popularity among professors of education. Progressive educators also embraced efforts to make schools less academic and more amenable to children who were not interested in traditional schooling. therefore. Led by psychologists such as Thorndike. known as the Coleman report for its lead author. Columbia University—was determined to demonstrate that education could become an exact science.A Brief History of Testing and Accountability | Hoover Institution 16/08/13 18:25 The leading educational psychologist in the first half of the twentieth century—Edward L. a complete turnaround from nineteenth-century practices. His work on testing.org/print/publications/hoover-digest/article/7286 Página 2 de 5 . one of which was its shift in focus from inputs to results. public officials. At one level. this was a response to the Depression. he believed that education was a function of the state and that its administration should be a professional matter in which public oversight was strictly limited. community activists.
president of the American Federation of Teachers until his death in 1996. • Policymakers have endorsed the standards-and-testing approach. and expanding teacher training. Professional educators (with some notable exceptions) seek to soften and eliminate any stakes for students.” • Policymakers want to use test results to reward teachers with merit pay. Professional educators http://www. increasing teachers’ salaries. Policymakers have sought accountability for students. Professional educators and their allies in higher education continue to focus on inputs (resources for reducing class size. elected officials came under pressure to “do something” about low student achievement. resources. Shanker advocated standards. As more and more information accumulated about student performance. STALEMATE This is where we have seen a split occur over the past generation between professional educators and the public officials who control the purse strings. The grounds for their resistance have varied. By the early 1980s. with first one and then the other gaining brief advantage. Governors. Consider the following examples: • Policymakers want tests to have stakes for test takers attached to them so that students will exert greater effort to pass them. testing. in which states describe what students are expected to learn. In short. some wanted to make education spending more cost-effective. The establishment of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 1970 provided cumulative new data and trend lines to document the educational achievement of American students.A Brief History of Testing and Accountability | Hoover Institution 16/08/13 18:25 This shift in focus from inputs (resources) to outputs (results) was facilitated by the increasing availability of test scores. whereas policymakers representing the public seek accountability for results. Professional educators have largely resisted these pressures. and his union has mainly followed his line. in particular. elected officials were expecting to see accountability for performance. operations. and other education organizations have maintained their strong objections. Many of them turned to business leaders as their natural allies in trying to improve their states’ complex and labor-intensive educational systems. and most wanted to accomplish both. teachers. and stakes. Professional educators have gone along with this strategy—with varying degrees of enthusiasm—but with a chorus that warns about the dangers of “teaching to the test” or “narrowing the curriculum. took up the challenge. usually consuming 40 percent of a state’s expenditures. Some governors wanted to get education costs under their control. These two competing paradigms are in constant tension. tests in which American eighth and twelfth graders often performed poorly.hoover. Another source of information about student achievement was derived from international tests of mathematics and science.org/print/publications/hoover-digest/article/7286 Página 3 de 5 . the National Education Association. In effect. and results. The most notable exception to this generalization was Albert Shanker. but in every instance the educators have sought to water down accountability and maintain professional discretion. whereas the larger teachers unions. for example). education was the single biggest budget item in every state. and many incentive structures that worked to improve business performance were adapted to public education in an effort to improve school performance. there are two competing paradigms of education reform at work simultaneously and not always harmoniously. depending on the issue. then test to see whether they have. schools. such as transparency in budget reporting. and school districts.
Educators continue to insist that the root problem of school failure is lack of resources. whose performance in all states lagged far behind their white and Asian peers. school facilities should be ample. and for state intervention or takeover for schools that consistently fail to perform. In all areas having to do with accountability in our schools. http://www.hoover. North Carolina. Texas. clashes will continue between the policymakers who seek it and the educators who seek to deflect it. school supplies should be adequate to students’ needs. and teachers should get continuing education to stay abreast of improved methods and knowledge. The starkest illustration of this can be found in Massachusetts. where demands for accountability are eventually but inevitably transformed into demands for more resources. • Policymakers enacted laws in nearly 40 states to permit the creation of public charter schools. but to do so they must have higher salaries. so it is hardly surprising that spokespeople for public education would vigorously attack them. smaller class sizes. Educators were skeptical and. so that parents can find out how their children’s schools are doing. Vouchers directly challenge the supremacy of the state system of public education. in some cases.org/print/publications/hoover-digest/article/7286 Página 4 de 5 .A Brief History of Testing and Accountability | Hoover Institution 16/08/13 18:25 vigorously reject this as a breach of professionalism that will undermine morale. which passed an ambitious school reform law in 1993 that pledged an extra $1 billion a year for the schools with the understanding that students would be expected to pass state examinations for high school graduation by 2003. It is fair to say that policymakers’ pressure for accountability has not run into a brick wall of resistance but a bowl of Jell-O instead. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the debate over standards and accountability is that the states that have persisted in this strategy over time have seen steady improvement in student performance. but by 2000 many educators were in open revolt against the state testing program. openly objected to what they saw as a diversion of public funds to quasi-public schools. and so on. more training. The state put up the money as promised. both on state tests and on the regular tests administered by NAEP. have openly fought against rewarding contracts to for-profit companies. The gains were especially significant for black and Hispanic students. • Policymakers have supported the use of contracting to allow private companies to manage schools. Educators want to improve student performance. • Policymakers have pushed for the use of school report cards. in some cases. which to some extent is reasonable: Teacher salaries should be high enough to attract well-educated college graduates into the classroom. Vouchers are a form of accountability because they offer parents the opportunity to remove their children from an institution that does not satisfy them—an alarming premise for professionals whose livelihood depends on the survival of that institution. It is also intriguing that all this jousting over the fate of accountability programs took place with another version of accountability lurking on the sidelines: vouchers. Massachusetts. with the state’s teachers union even running an expensive advertising campaign and sponsoring legislation to roll back implementation of the state graduation tests. and Virginia all saw strong achievement gains for their students. We can expect to see continued demands for pumping more resources into education. Educators have seen this move as a threat to public education and.
org/publications/hoover-digest/article/7286 Retrieved at 16:25:11 UTC on August 16. School Accountability is available from the Hoover Press. Among her many books are The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn (2003). Supreme Court decision that upheld the existing school voucher program in Cleveland. edited by Williamson M.S. however. She is also a research professor of education at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Historically Considered” in the Hoover Press book School Accountability. in the near term at least. and be generally well prepared for further education or for technical jobs when they graduate from high school. How this conflict is resolved will determine the future of American education. call 800-935-2882. a historian of education. and The Troubled Crusade: American Education.A Brief History of Testing and Accountability | Hoover Institution 16/08/13 18:25 We can also expect to see continued demands for improved performance in our schools. will therefore continue to be driven by the two paradigms: the professional education paradigm. Albert Shanker presciently recognized that the failure of standards-based reforms might pave the way for market-based reforms. the public is likely to conclude either that a generation of school reform has failed or that the reforms to date have been too timid. then interest in accountability through market reforms—that is.hoover. 2013 http://www.hoover. If that should happen. Copyright © 2013 by the Board of Trustees of Leland Stanford Junior University Phone: 650-723-1754 Source URL: http://www. 1945–1980 (1983). Adapted from the essay “Testing and Accountability. canceled out the one prominent voice among professional educators who was ready to lead a campaign in support of a strategy of standards. Diane Ravitch. Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform (2000). from Wellesley College and a Ph. write. use mathematics. in history from Columbia University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Walberg. American education. The public will continue to insist that students should be able to read.S. Also available is Teacher Quality. testing. vouchers—is likely to have greater public support than it has until now. and accountability.org/print/publications/hoover-digest/article/7286 Página 5 de 5 . She received a B.A. To order. Evers and Herbert J. she is a graduate of the Houston public schools. Department of Education from 1991 to 1993. edited by Lance T. Evers. and the policymaker paradigm. A native of Houston.D. especially in light of the recent U. which deeply believes that the profession should be insulated from public pressure for accountability and which is deeply suspicious of the intervention of policymakers. His premature death. Izumi and Williamson M. Ravitch was assistant secretary of education responsible for the Office of Educational Research and Improvement in the U. If large numbers of students continue to be poorly prepared. which insists that the public school system be subject to incentives and sanctions based on its performance. was a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and was one of the charter members of Hoover's Koret Task Force on K–12 Education (1999–2008).
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