Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3…

Some conservative commentators these days swing school tests around like bludgeons.  Testing and more testing is often the conservative answer to school woes.

William J. Reese reminds us that school testing has a much longer history than most of today’s school culture warriors tend to recognize. (Full disclosure: Bill was my PhD director and is still a good friend.  But I’d still want everyone to buy his book even if I didn’t know the guy.)

testing wars in the public schools

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In an op-ed in this morning’s New York Times, Reese offers a reminder from his new book that testing wars have a history as old as public education itself.

In the 1840s, it was the conservative side that opposed standardized, written tests, according to Reese.  Progressive reformers such as Horace Mann hoped to undermine the power and authority of stuffy school masters.  Traditionally, those masters administered oral exams to each student.  Reformers claimed written tests could abolish prejudice and subjectivity.  Written tests, progressives promised, would shake the cobwebs out of conservatives’ school power.

To be fair, there are plenty of thoughtful conservatives around today who echo this nineteenth-century anti-testing conservatism.  But we still often think of testing as a typically conservative notion.  Those tests, after all, are often sold as a way to hold left-leaning teachers’ unions’ feet to the fire.  Bill’s essay and book remind us that testing itself has long been used as a club to beat up conservative education curmudgeons.

 

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