History of Testing in the United States: Higher Education

Date01 May 2019
Published date01 May 2019
Subject MatterThe History of Assessments in American Education
/tmp/tmp-173Ej0EoKqf2Fo/input 847139ANN
The Annals of The American AcademyHistory of Testing in The United States
Since the founding of Harvard college, colleges and
universities have used many types of examinations to
serve multiple purposes. In the early days of student
assessment, the process was straightforward. Each
institution developed and administered its own unique
examination to its own students to monitor their pro-
gress and to prospective students who applied for
admission. Large-scale standardized tests emerged in
the twentieth century in part to relieve the burden
History of
placed upon high schools of having to prepare students
to meet the examination requirements of each institu-
Testing in the tion to which a student applied. Up to that point, local
communities of tutors and teachers were attempting to
prepare students to succeed on each higher education
United States: institution’s unique examination. Large-scale standard-
ized tests have enjoyed more than a century of popular-
ity and growth, and they have helped higher education
institutions to solve problems in admissions and place-
ment, and to measure learning outcomes. Over time,
they have also become controversial, especially pertain-
ing to race and class. This article is a historical view of
educational testing in U.S. higher education, linking its
development with past and present societal challenges
related to civil rights laws, prominent higher education
policies, and the long struggle of African American
people in the United States.
Keywords: African American students; standardized
tests; racism in education; civil rights;
higher education; segregation in educa-
tion; admissions testing
From the seventeenth-century founding of
Harvard college (Harvard University, n.d.),
colleges and universities in the United States
Michael T. Nettles is senior vice president and the
Edmund W. Gordon Chair of policy evaluation &
research at Education Testing Service. President Obama
appointed Nettles to the president’s Advisory
Commission on Educational Excellence for African
Americans. He was appointed by two U.S. secretaries of
education to serve on the National Assessment
Governing Board (NAGB). He also served for eight
years on both the College Board of Trustees and the
GRE Board.
correspondence: mnettles@ets.org
DOI: 10.1177/0002716219847139
AAPSS, 683, May 2019

have administered examinations for a variety of purposes, including admitting
students, placing students in remedial courses, selecting and steering them into
major fields, granting them credit for prior learning, and measuring their knowl-
edge gained during college in both general and major field curricula. During the
first two hundred years, oral examinations were the principal mode of testing.
According to Mary Lovett Smallwood (1935), written examinations were first
commonly used in higher education institutions for enrolled students in the 1830s
and in the admissions process beginning in 1851. Large-scale standardized tests
were administered initially by the college Entrance Examination Board (now
known as the college Board) in 1901, a year after it was founded.
Standardized tests have been employed to reduce the number and variety of
examinations developed and administered by each college and university that
applicants were required to take when applying for admission to college. In The
College Board: Its First Fifty Years, claude M. Fuess (1950) noted that standard-
ized tests also helped to address a need that colleges and universities had for using
a scientific measurement of students’ ability and achievement in their admissions
processes. While large-scale standardized tests have indeed helped higher educa-
tion institutions, they have also, at times, been controversial. Test scores have been
associated with stigma and stereotype threat, and scholars have found that minor-
ity students, for example, are perceived to achieve relatively lower performance
and consequently experience lower expectations of themselves (Steele and
Aronson 1995; Vershelden 2017). Developing and administering standardized
tests that successfully represent and fulfill the needs of the growing U.S. popula-
tion that is becoming more racially diverse is a present challenge (Ford 2004;
Santelices and Wilson 2010). Like many aspects of education in the United States,
testing has been controversial regarding race and class (Linn 2001).
This article presents an historical view of testing in higher education, linking
its development to past and present societal challenges associated with civil rights
laws and higher education policies and the African American experience through-
out. Unlike existing historical accounts of higher education testing (Lemann
2000), this article examines some relevant civil rights laws, key higher education
policies, and an accounting of African American people’s efforts to gain social
equality during the time periods when examinations and standardized tests were
being considered, introduced, and established in the United States.
colonial Era through the 1800s
European heritage
Until 1901, each college conducted its own examinations. Even though their
tests often covered the same subject matter as their peer institutions’ tests, each
college decided the structure, content, emphases, and methods of its own exami-
nations; and consequently each institution’s examinations were unique.
controversies about examinations were a local concern within each institution
and between the institution, schools, and private tutors that were preparing their

pupils to apply for admissions. Fuess (1950) described this as a period of higher
education admissions that was emblematic of elitist colonial American life and
education, when European values and culture were dominant. Prior to 1800, only
greek, Latin, and arithmetic were required subjects for college admissions. The
education scene consisted of elite educational institutions, in which only a small
fraction of the nation’s population participated (Barken 2010). Fuess wrote,
“Most candidates for college were trained under similar conditions in classical
academies or under private tutors. Written examinations were not employed, but
applicants were admitted after personal interviews with the president or mem-
bers of the faculty” (pp. 4–5).
Postcolonial growth of higher education, schools, admissions, and testing
Higher education institutions in the American colonies were growing steadily
in number during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, even outpacing the
addition of higher education institutions among their European forebears. At the
start of the revolutionary War, there were nine colleges in the colonies and only
two in England (Trow 1988). In 1870, after the Emancipation Proclamation and
the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. constitution, colleges and
universities numbered nearly five hundred (Trow 1988), and twenty-five were
founded as Black colleges for the Education of Negros—now known as
Historically Black colleges and Universities, HBcUs—nineteen public and six
private (Hoffman et al. 1996).
It was about this time that prominent higher education leaders began discuss-
ing common admissions tests. Notable advocates were charles William Eliot and
Nicholas Murray Butler. Eliot and Butler were the longest serving presidents of
Harvard University and columbia University, respectively. They were among the
higher education leaders who guided the movement toward creating the college
Board (Valentine 1987). Eliot was the first to call for uniform testing for admis-
sions and across the professions. In his inaugural address as president of Harvard
in 1869, he said:
The increasing weight, range, and thoroughness of the examination for admission to
college may strike some observers with dismay. … The dignity and importance of this
examination has been steadily rising and this rise measures the improvement of the
preparatory schools. … The examination tests not only the capacity of the candidates,
but also the quality of their school instruction. … The examination is conducted by col-
lege professors and tutors who have never had any relations whatever with those exam-
ined. It would be a great gain, if all subsequent college examinations could be as
impartially conducted by competent examiners brought from without the college and
paid for their services. … If the examinations for the scientific, theological, medical, and
dental degrees were conducted by independent boards of examiners, appointed by pro-
fessional bodies … the significance of these degrees would be greatly enhanced. (Eliot
1869, 8)
As leading advocates for common admissions examinations (Valentine 1987),
Eliot and Butler were met with formidable resistance from some higher educa-
tion leaders, who felt that by giving up their own unique examinations, they

would also lose autonomy over their own admissions processes. But with perse-
verance, Eliot and Butler prevailed. They were among the founders of the
college Board in 1900, the organization that would produce and administer the
first common examinations in 1901 (Valentine 1987).
Eliot, Butler, and other leaders of the time also...

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