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Where Did Standardized Testing Come From Anyway?

"Where Did Standardized Testing Come From Anyway?"  EXCERPT, from Chapter Four, "How We Measure," in Cathy N. Davidson Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn"  (Viking Press).

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From Chapter Four, "How We Measure," of Now You See It by Cathy N. Davidson

So where did standardized testing come from anyway? That’s not just a rhetorical question. There is a “father” of the multiple-choice test, someone who actually sat down and wrote the first one. His name was Frederick J. Kelly, and he devised it in 1914. It’s pretty shocking that if someone gave it to you today, the first multiple-choice test would seem quite familiar, at least in form. It has changed so little in the last eight or nine decades that you might not even notice the test was an antique until you realized that, in content, it addressed virtually nothing about the world since the invention of the radio.

Born in 1880 in the small farming town of Wymore, Nebraska, Kelly lived until 1959. A lifelong educator, he had seen, by the time of his death, the multiple- choice test adapted to every imaginable use, although it was not yet elevated into a national educational policy, the sole metric for assessing what kids were learning in school, how well teachers were teaching them, and whether schools were or were not failing.

Kelly began his career at Emporia State University (formerly Kansas State Teachers’ College). In 1914, he finished his doctoral dissertation at Teachers’ College, entitled Teachers’ Marks, Their Variability and Standardization. His the- sis argued two main points. First, he was concerned about the significant degree of subjective judgment in how teachers mark papers. Second, he thought mark- ing takes too much of a teacher’s time. He advocated solving the first problem— “variability”—with the solution of standardization, which would also solve the second problem by allowing for a fast, efficient method of marking.

Inspired by the “mental testing movement,” or early IQ testing, Kelly developed what he called the Kansas Silent Reading Test. By that time, he had progressed to become director of the Training School at the State Normal School at Emporia, Kansas, and from there, he went on to become the dean of education at the University of Kansas. “There has always been a demand on the part of teachers to know how effectively they are developing in their children the ability to get meaning from the printed page,” Kelly wrote. “Nothing is more fundamentally important in our school work than the development of this ability.”9 For Kelly, “effective teaching” meant uniform results. In this, he was a creature of his age, prizing a dependable, uniform, easily replicated product— the assembly-line model of dependability and standardization—over ingenuity, creativity, individuality, idiosyncrasy, judgment, and variability.

Thus was born the timed reading test. The modern world of 1914 needed people who could come up with the exact right answer in the exact right amount of time, in a test that could be graded quickly and accurately by anyone. The Kansas Silent Reading Test was as close to the Model T form of automobile production as an educator could get in this world. It was the perfect test for the machine age, the Fordist ideal of “any color you want so long as it’s black.”

To make the tests both objective as measures and efficient administra- tively, Kelly insisted that questions had to be devised that admitted no ambigu- ity whatsoever. There had to be wholly right or wholly wrong answers, with no variable interpretations. The format will be familiar to any reader: “Below are given the names of four animals. Draw a line around the name of each animal that is useful on the farm: cow tiger rat wolf.”

The instructions continue: “The exercise tells us to draw a line around the word cow. No other answer is right. Even if a line is drawn under the word cow, the exercise is wrong, and nothing counts. . . . Stop at once when time is called. Do not open the papers until told, so that all may begin at the same time.”

Here are the roots of today’s standards-based education reform, solidly preparing youth for the machine age. No one could deny the test’s efficiency, and efficiency was important in the first decades of the twentieth century, when public schools exploded demographically, increasing from about five hundred in 1880 to ten thousand by 1910, and when the number of students in secondary education increased more than tenfold.11 Yet even still, many educators objected that Kelly’s test was so focused on lower-order thinking that it missed all other forms of complex, rational, logical thinking entirely. They protested that essays, by then a long-established form of examination, were an exalted form of knowl- edge, while multiple-choice tests were a debased one. While essay tests focused on relationships, connections, structures, organization, and logic, multiple- choice exams rewarded memorization rather than logic, facts without context, and details disconnected from analysis. While essays allowed for creativity, rhe- torical flourishes, and other examples of individual style, the Silent Reading Test insisted on timed uniformity, giving the most correct answers within a specific time. While essays stressed coherent thinking, the Silent Reading Test demanded right answers and divided knowledge into discrete bits of informa- tion. While essays prized individuality and even idiosyncrasy, the bywords of the Silent Reading exam were uniformity and impersonality.12

What the multiple-choice test did avoid, though, was judgment. It was called objective, not because it was an accurate measure of what a child knew but because there was no subjective element in the grading. There was a grade key that told each teacher what was right and what was wrong. The teacher or teacher’s aide merely recorded the scores. Her judgment was no longer a fac- tor in determining how much a child did or did not know. And it was “her” judgment. By the 1920s, teaching was predominantly a woman’s profession. However, school administration was increasingly a man’s world. It was almost exclusively men who went off to earn advanced degrees in schools of education, not so they could teach better but so they could run schools (our word again) efficiently.13

The values that counted and prevailed for the Silent Reading Test were efficiency, quantification, objectivity, factuality, and, most of all, the belief that the test was “scientific.” By 1926, a form of Kelly’s test was adopted by the Col- lege Entrance Examination Board as the basis for the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).14 Because masses of students could all take the same test, all be graded in the same way, and all turned into numbers crunched to yield comparative results, they were ripe to become yet another product of the machine age: statistics, with different statisticians coming up with different psychometric theories about the best number of items, the best number of questions, and so forth.15 The Kansas Silent Reading Test asked different kinds of questions, depending on whether it was aimed at third graders or tenth graders. The reason for this was that Kelly designed the test to be analyzable with regard not just to individual achievement, as an assessment tool that would help a teacher and a parent determine how the child was doing, but also as a tool that would allow results to be compared from one grade to another within a school, across a range of grades within a school, and then outward, across schools, across districts, across cities, and divisible in any way one wanted within those geographical categories. If this sounds familiar, it is because it’s almost identical to our current educational policy.

This story has a bittersweet coda: It is clear from Kelly’s own later writings that he changed his mind about the wisdom of these tests. He didn’t write much, but what he did write doesn’t mention the Kansas Silent Reading Test. Far from enshrining this accomplishment for the historical record, his later writing passes over it in silence. It seems as if his educational philosophy had taken a decidedly different turn. By 1928, when he ascended to the presidency of the University of Idaho, he had already changed direction in his own thinking about the course of American education. In his inaugural presidential address, “The University in Prospect,” Kelly argued against what he saw as the predominant tendency of post–World War I education in America, toward a more specialized, standard- ized ideal. His most important reform at the University of Idaho during his presidency was to go stridently against the current of the modern educational movement and to create a unified liberal arts curriculum for the first and second years of study. His method emphasized general, critical thinking. “College prac- tices have shifted the responsibility from the student to the teacher, the emphasis from learning to teaching, with the result that the development of fundamental strengths of purpose or of lasting habits of study is rare,” President Kelly said, announcing his own blueprint for educational reform. He railed against special- ization at too early a stage in a student’s educational development and advocated “more fundamental phases of college work.” He insisted, “College is a place to learn how to educate oneself rather than a place in which to be educated.”16

Unfortunately, his message ran counter to the modernization, specializa- tion, and standardization of education he himself had helped start. Faculty in the professional schools at the University of Idaho protested President Kelly’s reforms, and in 1930, he was asked to step down from his position.17 Yet his test soldiered on and, as we have seen, persists to the present day in the end-of- grade exams that measure the success or failure of every child in public school in America, of every teacher in the public school system, and of every public school in America.

Once more, the roots of our twenty-first-century educational philosophy go back to the machine age and its model of linear, specialized, assembly-line efficiency, everyone on the same page, everyone striving for the same answer to a question that both offers uniformity and suffers from it. If the multiple-choice test is the Model T of knowledge assessment, we need to ask: What is the purpose of a Model T in an Internet age?



Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and the forthcoming Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (publication date, Viking Press, August 18, 2011).  below.

A starred review in the May 30 Publisher's Weekly notes:  "Davidson has produced an exceptional and critically important book, one that is all-but-impossible to put down and likely to shape discussions for years to come." PW named it one of the "top 10 science books" of the Fall 2011 season.

In the August 9 New York Times, columnist Virginia Heffernan calls the book "galvanic. . .  One of the nation’s great digital minds, she has written an immensely enjoyable omni-manifesto that’s officially about the brain science of attention. But the book also challenges nearly every assumption about American education. . . . As scholarly as “Now You See It” is — as rooted in field experience, as well as rigorous history, philosophy and science — this book about education happens to double as an optimistic, even thrilling, summer read. It supplies reasons for hope about the future. Take it to the beach. That much hope, plus that much scholarship, amounts to a distinctly unguilty pleasure."

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