Skip to main content

30% Off New Releases: Explore the List

Harvard University Press - home
Testing Wars in the Public Schools

Testing Wars in the Public Schools

A Forgotten History

William J. Reese

ISBN 9780674073043

Publication date: 03/11/2013

Request exam copy

Written tests to evaluate students were a radical and controversial innovation when American educators began adopting them in the 1800s. Testing quickly became a key factor in the political battles during this period that gave birth to America's modern public school system. William J. Reese offers a richly detailed history of an educational revolution that has so far been only partially told.

Single-classroom schools were the norm throughout the United States at the turn of the nineteenth century. Pupils demonstrated their knowledge by rote recitation of lessons and were often assessed according to criteria of behavior and discipline having little to do with academics. Convinced of the inadequacy of this system, the reformer Horace Mann and allies on the Boston School Committee crafted America's first major written exam and administered it as a surprise in local schools in 1845. The embarrassingly poor results became front-page news and led to the first serious consideration of tests as a useful pedagogic tool and objective measure of student achievement.

A generation after Mann's experiment, testing had become widespread. Despite critics' ongoing claims that 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. Testing Wars in the Public Schools puts contemporary battles over scholastic standards and benchmarks into perspective by showcasing the historic successes and limitations of the pencil-and-paper exam.

Praise

  • William Reese takes the reader back to the first standardized test in public school in the city of Boston in 1845...This book is a major addition to the role of schools in American society. People familiar with the arguments for and against testing will find similar arguments being talked about in 1845.

    —Kevin Winter, San Francisco Book Review

Awards

  • 2014, Winner of the HES Outstanding Book Award

Author

  • William J. Reese is Carl F. Kaestle WARF Professor of Educational Policy Studies and History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Book Details

  • 308 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

Recommendations