June 16, 2006

Standardized testing and accountability have a complicated history

As I've caught up on other work tasks, caught a line drive in my leg, and caught up with some reading, I've only pecked away at the remaining tasks on chapter 1 (on the political roots of accountability). Well, not really—I've received quite a bit of advice on the history of standardized testing and accountability and skimmed a lot of sources. As usual when I hit this type of passage, one subtopic (the history of standardized testing) deserves a full-length history in itself, and while there are plenty of books on parts of it (Gould on IQ, Lehmann on the SATs [with plenty of qualms by historians], etc.), there isn't a well-researched academic history of standardized testing as far as I'm aware. But that's not the book I'm writing. I only have a few pages for it.

The themes that are popping up are going to be familiar to historians:

  • the way that experiences with testing establishes a "grammar of schooling" for standardized tests (see Cuban and Tyack's book for a discussion of that term)
  • long-term business relationships between testing firms and states before the 1960s established an easy route to accountability
  • social networks from early-20th-century researchers to late-20th-century folks in the guts of state departments of education (e.g., the three-degree difference from Charles Judd to Tom Fisher, the head of state testing in Florida who retired just a few years ago)
  • resistance to the use of testing to judge schools in the 1960s (with the National Assessment of Educational Progress) and later
  • two key researchers outside colleges of education who carried ideas into the policy realm (James Coleman and Pat Moynihan)

To what extent were civil-rights motives important to the start of the modern accountability movement? I'm seeing considerably mixed evidence, and I have to make a judgment call on that, obviously. As an historian, it's one of those big-picture questions that I prefer to sleep on. I suspect it requires a nuanced reading of the evidence that just isn't in my head yet.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein on June 16, 2006 11:49 AM |