The Fall of the Standard-Bearers

Sunday, July 30, 2006
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Little more than a century ago, the leaders of American secondary and higher education concluded that there was a need for uniform standards in college admissions. The high school leaders were frustrated because every college had its own requirements, and they could find themselves preparing 16 students for 16 different colleges. “Educational anarchy,” some principals justly said.

For their part, the colleges were dissatisfied because so many students arrived ill prepared for college work, and many colleges had to open departments to correct the deficiencies. Some colleges administered their own examinations, some admitted students only from accredited high schools, and some sent faculty members to inspect high schools. Like the principals, the college leaders were unhappy with the patchwork transition from high school to college.

Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University, and Charles Eliot, president of Harvard University, persuaded their colleagues in American education of the importance of developing an organization to establish uniform curriculum standards and a uniform examination system. Their planning led to the creation of the College Entrance Examination Board in 1900.

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Standards and Responsibility

The new organization created the best, most consistent, and most influential standards that American education has ever known. The work of “the Board,” as it was known, had a powerful, uplifting influence on secondary education. Even though roughly only 1 of every 20 17-year-olds in 1900 finished high school, and even fewer expected to go to college, everyone who attended high school in that era studied the curriculum that later became known as the “college track.” Whether the children of doctors or farmers or factory workers, they were expected to study mathematics, science, English literature, composition, history, and a foreign language (usually Latin).

Because the College Board was a private operation, compliance with its standards was voluntary for the colleges that elected to join. The new orga-nization decided which subjects to examine and how to define them. Teachers and professors, working together, wrote and graded the examinations and periodically revised the curricular standards in each area.

Not everyone was thrilled with this new plan. The president of Princeton University worried that it would lead to a state examination system. Eliot assured him that that was not even a remote possibility. The president of Lafayette College complained that it might prevent the college from admitting the sons of wealthy benefactors and faculty members. Butler assured him that Lafayette, if it chose, could admit “only such students as cannot pass these examinations.”

Early College Board examinations—in chemistry, English, French, German, Greek, Latin, history, mathematics, and physics—contained essay questions only.

The board's first tests were offered in June 1901 to 978 applicants to Columbia, Barnard College, and New York University. Each year more colleges joined the program as they came to recognize its value.

The examinations—in chemistry, English, French, German, Greek, Latin, history, mathematics, and physics—contained no multiple-choice questions. Students were expected to demonstrate their knowledge by writing extended essays or displaying their solutions to problems. In English, 10 classics were assigned in advance for students, including The Merchant of Venice, The Vicar of Wakefield, The Last of the Mohicans, Silas Marner, and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Students were told that they would be judged more for their powers of clear expression than for their minute knowledge of those works, but they were expected to have closely studied them and be ready to answer questions in detail. Every two or three years, the standards and reading lists were revised, and high-school teachers knew well in advance which works would be covered.

Over the years, the teachers and professors who participated in grading college entrance examinations developed more than common standards; they developed a sense of community and collegiality, a shared sense of responsibility for what students were expected to know before they entered college. The spirit of professionalism that connected high schools and colleges may have been one of the most important results of the creation of the College Board.

The College Board's first tests were offered in June 1901 to 978 applicants to Columbia University, Barnard College, and New York University.

Because the work of the board was so widely respected, for many years its examinations raised standards for teachers and for students, college-bound or not. And the board accepted as its mission the responsibility for setting standards for the nation's schools.

The Quest for “Objectivity”

Alas, that situation would not last forever. Even as the College Board was reaching the height of professional and public esteem, experts in educational assessment were developing new kinds of tests. Beginning with examinations created for the U.S. Army during World War I, psychologists of education touted the virtues of group-administered intelligence testing. Psychologists such as Carl C. Brigham, Lewis Terman, Edward L. Thorndike, and Robert Yerkes claimed that the new tests could quickly make accurate predictions about students' innate ability.

Traditional examinations, like those of the College Board, aimed to measure what students had learned as a result of study and instruction. By contrast, the new intelligence tests promised to save time and money by measuring not what students had learned but what they were capable of learning.

Faced with claims that its examinations were obsolete, and not “scientific” like the new tests, the College Board engaged a group of psychologists to design a “modern” test. The committee, which included Brigham and Yerkes, produced the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which was administered for the first time in 1926.

In 1930 Brigham joined the staff of the College Board, where he continued to conduct research on the SAT. A key figure in the development, marketing, and popularization of group intelligence tests, he maintained not only that they measured fixed, innate intelligence but also that inherited intelligence varied by race and ethnicity.

Because the work of the College Board was so widely respected, for many years its examinations raised standards for teachers and for students, college-bound or not.

By the late 1930s, Brigham and other testing experts were in the saddle at the College Board. They had long complained that its essay exams were too subjective, that grading them was too variable, and that they lacked technical validity and reliability. Despite the reverence with which teachers across the nation held the examinations, the testing experts said they were psychometrically unsound in comparison with the new, multiple-choice tests.

On December 7, 1941, the course of history was changed in more than military matters. On that day, the presidents of Harvard, Princeton, and Yale were attending a routine meeting to discuss College Board affairs. When they learned about the attack on Pearl Harbor, they realized that many young men would be called to active duty and thus that there would not be time to administer the traditional written examinations to those who might want to take them. So they agreed to drop the College Board's written examinations and to offer, instead, the SAT and multiple-choice achievement tests.

After 41 years of continuous service to American education, the reign of examinations written, read, and graded by teachers was over. The day of the multiple-choice objective test, technically valid and reliable, psychomet-rically sound, and machine-scored, had arrived.

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Some educators hoped that the change would be strictly a wartime mea-sure. It was not. Those who admired “the Boards” valued them because of their clear educational purpose, their emphasis on writing and lucid expression, and the support they gave to a strong curriculum. The admirers didn't believe that multiple-choice questions could adequately replace essays in which students were expected to demonstrate knowledge of subject.

It's All about the Test

But after the war, the primary function of the College Board shifted. It no longer saw itself as an agency set up to establish standards by overseeing the collaboration of schools and colleges, but as a testing agency. In 1948 it helped create the Educational Testing Service, which took over the admissions-testing program. Although the founders of the board had emphasized that its examinations would be based on clear curricular standards, now both the board and the ETS insisted that their tests had no bearing on either standards or curriculum. In the 1940s and 1950s, the board insisted that it had deliberately abandoned its role as a standard-setting organization and had, instead, become an impartial assessor of student abilities.

The SAT, broadly accepted as the mainstay of the college admissions process, was supposedly curriculum-neutral. Board leaders repeatedly asserted that the test was not intended to influence what was taught in American schools. The founding dream of Eliot and Butler was dead.

It is by no means clear that public officials, given political and bureacratic constraints, can accomplish what the College Board once did—or that they even know what ought to be done.

The College Board's abdication of its role in establishing curriculum standards left a large vacuum at the heart of American education. Recently that vacuum has been filled by the federal and state governments. President George Bush called a national summit in 1989, trying to promote a common educational program. President Bill Clinton persuaded Congress to pass legislation called Goals 2000, which gave money to states to create standards and examinations. The current President Bush persuaded Congress to pass the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires states to administer annual tests in reading and mathematics to students in grades 3–8 (science will be tested starting in 2007).

The current regime of testing is aimed at raising the test scores of students who are performing poorly. It is an entirely skills-based approach, geared toward using the threat of federal sanctions to raise a low common denominator. It leaves out subjects such as history, civics, literature, the arts, foreign languages—and advanced courses in every subject. As a result, many states have adopted a dumbed-down definition of proficiency.

Under the old regime of the College Board, the nation's schools had standards that were uniform, predictable, and elevating; they were written and revised by those who were in the nation's classrooms. Today the states and the federal government have taken over the responsibility for setting the nation's standards. So far the results are unimpressive. It is by no means clear that public officials, given political and bureaucratic constraints, can accomplish what the College Board once did—or that they even know what ought to be done.

Where are Butler and Eliot now that we need them again?

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