The Evolution of Assessments in Education

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  • 00:00 Evolution of Assessment
  • 1:25 Early Years
  • 3:07 Standardized Tests
  • 5:32 Legislation
  • 7:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will trace the evolution of American educational assessment from colonial times to the present. It will highlight the role of standardized testing as well as several pieces of legislation.

Evolution of Assessment

Yesterday I cleaned out my refrigerator. It's a task I despise, but despite my dislike of it, it's a rather easy job. I take out all the leftovers, and I give them a look and a smell. If they pass the sniff and sight test, they live another day. If there's even a hint of spoilage, they get tossed, and that's the end. There are no government regulations I need to follow or forms I need to fill out. It's just a quick pass or fail system of assessment.

When cleaning out my refrigerator, this system of quick, subjective assessment works just fine. Unfortunately, the same can not be said for educational assessment. Unlike a mom testing the contents of plastic food containers, the task of assessing educational progress is rife with procedures, standards, and a whole bunch of concern. Due to this, educational assessment has gone through oh so many changes and stages.

Today we'll discuss this evolution as we look into the history of educational assessment. Since this is such a broad topic with so many avenues to explore, we will limit our scope to American education from about colonial days to the present. Also, because this topic also incites lots of emotions, we'll limit our inquiry to facts.

And so we begin.

Early Years

During America's earliest years, educational assessment usually took the form of oral evaluation. Rather than filling in multiple choice bubbles, students were called to the front of the class to recite passages, spell words, or do arithmetic in their heads. Unlike today, assessments were not standardized. Evaluations did not require students to answer from a standard, preconceived bank of questions in order to measure mastery. Rather, they were subjective. Sort of like I inspect the leftovers in my fridge, the teachers of old gave their students 'the sniff and sight test.' Can they answer my questions to my satisfaction? If so, they pass to the next level. If not, they stay behind for more practice.

Changing things a bit, written examinations began creeping onto the scene. Yes, oral exams were still employed, but having students prove themselves on paper also became a popular assessment tool. It became commonplace for a child of the mid-1880s to sit at a desk and take a test. However, at this time, evaluation was still not standardized or centralized. Educational assessment was not regulated by some central, overarching government authority. For the most part, teachers made the assessment decisions.

Following closely behind written assessments were letter grades. In the late 1890s, Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts, instituted the first full scale letter grading system. Now instead of a teacher's smile and nod signifying a pass or not up to snuff, the letters A, B, C, D, E, and F conveyed success or failure.

Standardized Tests

On the heels of letter grades came standardized tests. Unlike the more subjective tools previously employed, standardized tests require all students to show mastery by successfully answering a battery of the same standard questions. One of the first standardized tests used in the U.S.was the Thorndike Handwriting Scale of the early 1900s. Following soon after this came the Stone Arithmetic Test, one of the first American standardized tests in mathematics.

With the advent of standardized testing, assessment underwent another huge change. Standardized tests were not only used to assess student performance, they were also used to compare student performance. Sort of like me taking out all my cucumbers and ranking them from freshest to spoiled, the guys calling the shots in education believed these standardized tests afforded a more objective and effective means to rank students.

Within about a decade of the Thorndike Handwriting Scale, standardized tests were popping up everywhere. In the early 1930s, the Scholastic Aptitude Test, known famously as the SAT, was born. Designed from an earlier IQ test used by the military, the SAT soon became the predominant test used to measure student readiness for college.

By the late 1940s, standardized testing had cemented its place in American education. This time period saw the birth of the Educational Testing Service (ETS) the world's largest educational and testing assessment organization. Although ETS has come under some scrutiny over the years, it has churned out some of the nation's most used standardized tests. Along with the SAT, the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), the College Level Examination Program (the CLEP), the Praxis Test, and many more, all belong to the Educational Testing Service's catalog of tests.

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