In previous centuries life was often dominated by social status and nepotism, with positions of authority and leadership often reserved only for those with powerful connections. Often, these connections were established at birth, such as in a monarchy. Family lineage determined who would grow up to rule what. Though powerful monarchies eroded over time as citizens of many nations wanted self-rule and democracy, the power of social class and nepotism continued. For example, in the early years of the United States of America the phrase “all men are created equal” only applied to white, property-owning males over age 21. To be a true, voting citizen accorded “equal rights” you had to be a landowner, which meant possessing a certain degree of wealth and social standing.
This system dominated for many years even after the crumbling of monarchies. Government jobs and access to higher education was widely controlled by one’s social connections. If you wanted a lucrative government job or a spot at a university you had to know the right person. This system of social class and nepotism allowed many people who lacked sufficient aptitude or skill to claim important jobs. The problems of this were widespread: Incompetence was common, politicking was intense, and turnover was extremely high because it occurred with each “regime change.” If a new person came to power he (rarely was it a she) would arbitrarily remove many inherited subordinates to make room for his own entourage and supporters with little regard to skill or qualifications.
It did not take long for some rulers to realize that it was a bad idea to let social connections and nepotism determine who held positions of authority. In Han Dynasty China (206 BC – 220 AD), reports the Washington Post, the first standardized tests, known as Imperial examinations, were used to determine which individuals had aptitudes for government and administrative positions. Rich and poor could test for the same positions and the individuals with the best scores got the job, thus ensuring a higher level of government competence. Of course, there was resistance to these early standardized tests: Up through the 19th century these Imperial examinations were criticized for focusing on rote memorization of Confucian principles, not real-world applications, angering lower- and middle-class test-takers who lacked the luxury of time and paid tutors to help memorize passages.
Nevertheless, the goal of standardized testing remains relatively the similar to its goal during the Han Dynasty: To establish an intellectual meritocracy. Modern aptitude testing in the United States, such as the AP tests and the SAT, ACT, GRE, LSAT, and MCAT exams, are meant to reveal the intellectual aptitudes and skills of high school and college students regardless of pedigree or social connections. For many years only wealthy students, primarily male, could gain acceptance to universities, especially when it came to the pursuit of advanced degrees, and education reformers chafed at the notion that resources were being squandered to create exclusive “social clubs” for wealthy young men. Beginning in the 20th century, reformers wanted higher education to be reserved for those who could put it to good use, not simply those who could pay a pretty penny, thus establishing the basis for standardized aptitude and knowledge testing.
Today, however, a second purpose for standardized testing has emerged, known as “benchmarking.” An addition to determining aptitude, standardized test scores are compared from year to year, and from group to group, to determine whether or not systems are improving, degrading, or remaining steady. This has created controversy, with those studying changes in standardized testing scores often unable to come to consensus on what factors cause scores to increase or decline over time.