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Testing Wars in the Public Schools

Testing Wars in the Public Schools

William J. Reese
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Harvard University Press
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  • Book Info
    Testing Wars in the Public Schools
    Book Description:

    Despite claims that written exams narrowed the curriculum, ruined children's health, and turned teachers into automatons, once tests took root in American schools their legitimacy was never seriously challenged. William Reese puts today's battles over standards and benchmarks into perspective by showcasing the history of the pencil-and-paper exam.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-07567-2
    Subjects: Education, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-7)

    “This is a paper on examinations,” the speaker warned his audience, “so, after you have heard it read, and have duly considered it, of course you will mark it—it may be zero—it may be infinity: and, after all, what’s the difference?” For time would still pass, the stars still “sparkle, the sun still shine, figures still lie,” pupils and teachers still tremble. “This is an age of examinations,” he added. “Is it not a wonder that so many of our American boys and girls survive the almost continual examinations to which they are subjected? There are oral examinations,...

  4. CHAPTER 1 Festivals of Learning
    (pp. 8-37)

    Mr. Spoutsound had a diminutive frame but a booming voice, impressing the villagers, who wondered why he had not become a preacher. On the Sabbath he drowned out fellow congregants honoring the Lord. A single term at an academy, where he cultivated public speaking, enabled him to land a teaching position for the winter term at a one-room school in rural New Hampshire. A former pupil described him as nothing less than “an enthusiastic votary to the Ciceronian art.” Men filled most teaching positions in the early nineteenth century, and college students often taught between terms to help pay their...

  5. CHAPTER 2 A-Putting Down Sin
    (pp. 38-68)

    “The Public Schools of Boston are justly the pride and glory of the city.” So claimed Henry Barnard, one of America’s leading champions of public education, in 1842. History seemed to justify his boast. Soon after migrating from England in 1629, the Puritan settlers had distinguished themselves by establishing a Latin grammar school, Harvard University at Cambridge, and other means of education and enlightenment. The commitment to schooling was impressive. In 1789, Boston created a separate committee to govern its various schools, including English grammar schools in which students pursued a non-classical education. By 1818, after lengthy debate, citizens approved...

  6. CHAPTER 3 Screwing Machines
    (pp. 69-97)

    “The first meeting of the new Board was held on Thursday afternoon,” the Boston Daily Atlas reported on January 18, 1845. A handful of reform-minded Whigs had swept into office, testifying to the determination of Horace Mann and his friends to rout their enemies and, in Mann’s mind, to root out sin. What difference would they make? History was not encouraging. Complaints about the grammar schools always outnumbered remedies. Since the 1820s, reformers had blasted the double-headed system, overbearing masters, and superficial approaches to judging and comparing schools. But the system seemed impervious to change. Recall that every incumbent master...

  7. CHAPTER 4 A Pile of Thunder-Bolts
    (pp. 98-126)

    “The seats are narrow, the children crowded, the air close, though the windows are broken, the desks uneasy, the floor ripped up, the plastering falling, the funnel broken, the room smoky, in short, a place for nothing, and everything out of its place.” Thus did the Reverend Leonard Withington describe the common schools of New England in 1832, a far cry from any romantic image of America’s rural schoolhouses. When the phrenologist George Combe visited Boston a few years later, he was appalled by the noxious odors in the grammar schools. “Many of the school-rooms are deficient in ventilation, and...

  8. CHAPTER 5 Thanatopsis and Square Roots
    (pp. 127-157)

    By the fall of 1845, Bostonians were flooded with copies of the summer examiners’ reports. They offered readers a blow-by-blow account of what inspired the birth of written examinations, the less than sterling performance of the pupils, and recommendations for reform. Once Horace Mann began printing long excerpts in the Common School Journal, congratulatory letters began arriving at his office. Writing from Syracuse on October 22, his abolitionist friend the Reverend Samuel J. May told Mann that once they learned the facts the “people of Boston” would never “tolerate” the behavior of the masters. A day later, a job seeker...

  9. CHAPTER 6 Chewing Pencil Tops
    (pp. 158-187)

    Professional educators in the post-Civil War era never forgot what had occurred in Boston in 1845. While Horace Mann, Samuel Gridley Howe, and their friends and enemies passed from the scene, the idea of testing children in written, competitive examinations to measure student achievement and teacher quality gained more champions and grew ever powerful. In 1800, exhibitions, recitations, and visual displays of learning were the central means to assess a school. A century later, these seemingly timeless practices had hardly disappeared, but they had lost much of their legitimacy. Except in the most backwoods districts, no one confused an exhibition...

  10. CHAPTER 7 The Culture of Testing
    (pp. 188-220)

    As competitive testing spread after the Civil War, Americans accommodated themselves to the changing world of schools in a variety of ways. The most smitten advocates of competitive tests believed they had found a tool that measured both teacher competence and pupil performance, to identify who deserved promotion from grade to grade, academic honors, or a diploma. Critics complained that the statistics were not very reliable and worried about the harmful effects of testing upon pupils, teachers, pedagogy, and the curriculum. Some romantic, progressive educators took a more radical position, calling for the elimination of competitive testing and letting children...

  11. Epilogue
    (pp. 221-234)

    By the 1890s, promotion exams increasingly disappeared and daily, weekly, monthly, end-of-term, and end-of-year tests proliferated in graded school systems. In Chicago, superintendent Albert G. Lane applauded the elimination of promotion exams and growing variety of written alternatives, which when combined with traditional oral questions and answers gave teachers better insights into how well children learned. Beginning in the lowest primary grades, he said, “written tests are constantly given to determine the spelling, punctuation, exactness of thought, and power of expression. They show the teacher the defects of individual pupils as well as those which are common to a class,...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 235-290)
  13. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 291-292)
  14. Index
    (pp. 293-298)