Testing Wars in the Public Schools: A Forgotten History

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Overview

Written tests to evaluate students were a radical and controversial innovation when American educators began adopting them in the 1800s. Testing quickly became a key factor in the political battles during this period that gave birth to America's modern public school system. William J. Reese offers a richly detailed history of an educational revolution that has so far been only partially told.

Single-classroom schools were the norm throughout the United States at the turn of the nineteenth century. Pupils demonstrated their knowledge by rote recitation of lessons and were often assessed according to criteria of behavior and discipline having little to do with academics. Convinced of the inadequacy of this system, the reformer Horace Mann and allies on the Boston School Committee crafted America's first major written exam and administered it as a surprise in local schools in 1845. The embarrassingly poor results became front-page news and led to the first serious consideration of tests as a useful pedagogic tool and objective measure of student achievement.

A generation after Mann's experiment, testing had become widespread. Despite critics' ongoing claims that exams narrowed the curriculum, ruined children's health, and turned teachers into automatons, once tests took root in American schools their legitimacy was never seriously challenged. Testing Wars in the Public Schools puts contemporary battles over scholastic standards and benchmarks into perspective by showcasing the historic successes and limitations of the pencil-and-paper exam.

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Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Zimmerman
Written tests are the bête-noire of contemporary educational critics, who claim that the tests encourage a sterile and rote pedagogy. But in William Reese's tale, they were originally part of reformers' efforts to, yes, reform sterile and rote pedagogy! These stories—and a treasure-trove of other ones—come to life in this new look at the early years of American public schools.
Maris Vinovskis
As Testing Wars in the Public Schools shows, written student examinations have always been entwined with public schools in the United States, and have been required, praised, and resented for generations. In this lively book, William Reese reveals the debates over rote memorization, threats to health, and even the use and misuse of statistics that were common in the 19th century as well as in the 21st. This highly original and thoughtful book is well worth reading.
San Francisco Book Review - Kevin Winter
William Reese takes the reader back to the first standardized test in public school in the city of Boston in 1845...This book is a major addition to the role of schools in American society. People familiar with the arguments for and against testing will find similar arguments being talked about in 1845.
Choice - S. T. Schroth
With Testing Wars in the Public Schools, Reese crafts a masterful examination of the roots of the testing culture in American education and the ramifications for administrators, teachers, and students.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674073043
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 3/11/2013
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 308
  • Sales rank: 558,845
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

William J. Reese is Carl F. Kaestle WARF Professor of Educational Policy Studies and History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

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