At first standardized testing was a meritocracy tool, used to help elevate high-performers from the lower classes and allow them to compete more fairly against wealthy students with powerful social connections. In Western nations attending a good university was often the result of social class, not academic merit, until relatively recently. If you were poor, even being a stellar student did not necessarily get you into college.
The first standardized tests were used to help governments determine aptitude regardless of social class or on-paper credentials. In 1900 the College Entrance Examination Board was created to help colleges and universities identify academically-worthy students through shared tests, reports College Board. Later, World War I gave the U.S. government incentive to come up with tools to quickly and accurately determine the intelligence and aptitudes of massive numbers of young men. Which men could be trained for which military duties? With draftees and volunteers coming from across the nation, and no uniform curricula to guarantee that a high school graduate in Maine had learned the same things as a high school graduate in Oregon, standardized testing applied the same questions to all men regardless of age, social standing, or level of education. In 1926, the SAT, or Scholastic Aptitude Test, was first administered by the College Board.
After World War II the G.I. Bill helped turn higher education from a bastion of elitism to an egalitarian system of skill-building, making the SAT test a mainstream slice of life for American high school students. Middle- and working-class applicants could now afford to earn college degrees. To compare the new masses of middle-class applicants with traditional applicants from the upper classes, standardized testing was important. Additionally, with so many college applicants coming from diverse school districts, standardized tests were needed to determine if all school districts were graduating college-ready young men and women.
Traditionally, the role of standardized testing in education has been as a college application tool. Colleges and universities can use SAT and ACT scores as tools to determine, regardless of other credentials, how well a high school senior is likely to perform in college. For many years, the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and the American College Testing (ACT) exam were the two tests everyone thought of when “standardized testing” was mentioned. Other standardized tests, called Advanced Placement tests, were introduced in 1955. Students who were in rigorous Advanced Placement classes in high school could take AP tests to earn college credit, allowing high-performing students to enter college with multiple credits already attained.
Today, however, “standardized testing” has grown exponentially and is now more frequently associated with testing within, rather than outside of, K-12 schooling. Beginning with federal “No Child Left Behind” legislation in 2002, reports Reuters, standardized testing became standard fare in public schools to determine how well students were learning, and were being taught, core concepts and principles. School districts have begun using the tests not just to gauge student progress, but also to evaluate teachers. The controversial practice of judging teacher performance by their students’ standardized test scores has created nationwide debates, with critics claiming that some teachers are unfairly hindered in these evaluations by inheriting classrooms full of unprepared, apathetic students.
These in-school standardized tests are typically referred to as “benchmark” exams or “end-of-course” exams. Benchmark exams are given during the year, often multiple times, to determine whether or not students are progressing at a decent pace. End-of-course exams are more serious and students must pass them to receive credit in the course. Despite passing the class itself, a student may not receive credit in the subject if he or she fails the district- or state-wide EOC exam. Teachers are often appraised, at least in part, based on their classes’ performances on these tests.