History of Standardized Testing

Every high school student anticipates the day when they take their first ACT or SAT exams. The best estimate is that 1.5 million students take standardized tests each year (Fletcher, 2009). These tests are used by colleges in admission decisions based on the assumption that standardized tests offer an indication of student performance in college. The same is true with the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) and the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). 

Origins of Standardized Testing

In Western Civilization, standardized testing was part of the Industrial Revolution and the need to place and train entry workers in factory jobs. Standardized intelligence testing began in 1905 with Alfred Binet and eventually evolved into the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test. In World War I, the U.S. military relied on standardized testing known as the Army Mental Tests in placing service members in military occupations. In 1936, automatic “grading” of the tests became possible by use of machines that scanned answer sheets. The military vocational assessment tradition continues today with the Armed Services Vocational Ability Battery (ASVAB). 

Academic Testing

The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) was created and produced by the College Board in 1926. The original SAT consisted of 315 questions and allowed 90 minutes for completion. The questions combined and examined vocabulary and math knowledge. The test was revised in 1930 to created separate verbal and math tests. The SAT became a standard part of the admissions process for universities after World War II. A writing section was added in 2005 and replaced the analogies section of the test. Tests are graded separately and combined scores range from 1600 to 2400. 

The ACT (American College Testing) was published in 1959 as a competitor to the SAT. The ACT included sections devoted to math, reading, and English skills. The ACT also includes a section on scientific knowledge. The scale of scores ranges from 0 to 36.   

Universities vary in which standardized test they prefer. One reason is because the SAT is assumed to measure logic while the ACT measures accumulated knowledge (Fletcher, 2009). The “preferred” test often leads to a subjective conclusion based on the preferences of the school or the student. Some might argue that the preference is based on the course of study since the SAT test and the ACT test seem to show a preference for certain academic disciplines. For example, the SAT might be a better measure of analytical ability so the SAT might be preferred for those pursuing majors in math or science. 

The SAT introduced variations of the test in the late 21st century. The SAT II was designed to include subject matter for freshmen courses that student would like to have exempt. The PSAT was introduced to prep high school students for the SAT and to assist in selecting National Merit Scholarship recipients.   

Vocational Assessments

The military use of standardized testing evolved into wider use in vocational psychology. The development of vocational psychology through pioneers like James Holland brought standardized testing into a new realm. Holland proposed that the majority of jobs could be classified under six categories (Realistic, Investigative, Social, Enterprising, and Artistic). The categories were also used to describe vocational interests within workers. The goal was to match the vocational codes of workers with the vocational code of a particular job. Congruence between codes should contribute to job satisfaction. 

Holland’s RIASEC labels were the theoretical foundation of a number of new standardized tests in vocational counseling. The Self-Directed Search, Vocational Preference Inventory, and the Strong Interest Inventory are based on Holland’s theory. More recently, CareerKey created a vocational preference exam based on Holland’s labels. 


Standardized testing offer a powerful and objective tool for evaluating the cognitive ability and accumulated knowledge. Standardized testing has a rich history of serving multiple purposes. The next stage of evolution for standardized testing will likely expand on virtual access to standardized tests so that paper tests become obsolete.


Fletcher, D. (2009). A brief history of standardized testing. Retrieved from http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1947019,00.html#ixzz19hXqvnrM