The History of Standardized Testing

Instructor: Andrew Diamond

Andrew has worked as an instructional designer and adjunct instructor. He has a doctorate in higher education and a master's degree in educational psychology.

In this lesson, you'll explore the beginnings of standardized testing nearly 2,000 years ago and trace its development up to the modern day. A short quiz follows.

The Importance of Standardized Testing

As a society, and as educators, we put a great deal of emphasis on standardized testing. Standardized tests are used to allocate budgets, craft policy, and determine student placement. Given how often we use these tests - and how high the stakes can be - it is in our best interest to understand their origin and the way they have evolved over time.

Traditional standardized testing
Standardized Testing

First and foremost we need to establish a definition for a standardized test. We call them standardized tests because every test is composed of equivalent questions, taken under similar conditions, and scoring is done in the same manner. A good example of this is the Scholastic Aptitude Test, now simply known as the SAT.

The SAT consists of the same sections for everyone who takes it: they are all given the same amount of time (unless they are granted more under the Americans with Disabilities Act), the procedure for taking the test is always done the same, and scoring is uniform. You can take the SAT in North Pole, Alaska or Key West, Florida, and it should be functionally equivalent. Due to the standardized nature a college or university can look at SAT scores and compare students' abilities.

Earliest Standardized Testing

The standardized test has surprisingly early roots, going back nearly 2,000 years to the Han dynasty in 1st-century China. These first standardized tests were used to measure bureaucratic abilities for appointment by the emperor of China. They evolved over hundreds of years until 605 CE when the first large-scale standardized test, the imperial examination, was used to confer degrees on applicants and determine their best function within the government.

These tests evolved over their lifetime. To begin with, many of the standardized tests found in China were extremely partisan, with only specific people allowed to apply to take the test and only wealthy people able to afford the luxury of studying. These early tests were also quite narrow, relying on memorization of Confucian texts and Chinese mythology. At the same time as the test was becoming more accessible to greater numbers of people it was also incorporating a more diverse format, with poetry compositions and essays now being required along with rote memorization.

These early standardized tests were a remarkable force for democratizing the government of China. By the 10th century it was possible for Chinese citizens of low social standing and citizens of occupied countries, most notably Mongolia, to take the tests and join the ranks of the elite. The standardized test made it possible to prove your value as a civil servant, granting you and your family much greater wealth and treatment, regardless of your ethnic background. The value of the test was so great that the emperor himself often oversaw the examinations, and calligraphers would copy the work to avoid bias in recognizing handwriting.

19th-Century European Expansion

In the early 19th century, the standardized test was imported to Europe from Chinese colonies held by the British Empire. Colonies were rife with corruption due to the aristocratic nature of British society, so colonial governors quickly adopted the system as it favored competence over heritage. From Britain it spread to mainland Europe and later to British colonies in the New World.

Western education had traditionally been based on the Socratic method of Ancient Greece. Debates, essays, and lectures were favored over factual recitation. This system, which favored philosophy, critical thinking, and open-ended discussion, fell out of favor thanks in large part to the Industrial Revolution allowing for greater educational access to the masses. The university was no longer the home of the ivory tower and landed gentry, but the common man utilizing the scientific method to seek out wisdom.

Standardized Testing in the United States

The United States had, for the most part, copied the European system of education. It didn't hurt that most of the early universities in the New World were founded by graduates of European universities. However, in the early 20th century two things happened to cause a boom in standardized testing.

The United States has a long history of immigration, but those whose ancestors immigrated wanted to keep out the next wave of immigrants, strangely enough. Because of this, some of the earliest standardized testing in the United States was completed by new immigrants to determine their social standing and possible career opportunities. In reality, however, these tests were often used to justify poor treatment of these individuals.

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