A Short History of High-Stakes Testing

It seems that the only thing that we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history.  The story behind the development of public schooling and the shape of its administration typifies the message behind this verisimilitude. Schooling is supposed to be attached to learning and teaching; and history has shown that the more we try to improve the circumstances of school learning and achievement by intrinsic means, the greater the opposition to it. Indeed, it seems that the more things change through school-level innovation, the greater the desire to go backwards with apoplectic haste.

The fundamental belief in testing as a motivator for improvement has told its story for generations. We are yet to learn from its part in the history of schooling.  It is not a pleasant history.

When public schooling started to gain attention during the economic disturbances of the Industrial Revolution, a style of schooling was developed in England that later spread to the colonies. Child labour in the mills and mines and fields had led to excessive inhumanity. Younger children had been exploited and the laissez-faire attitude of the general population played into the hands of business corporations. Parents, who could raise a few pence, sent their children to Dame Schools while left-outs exploited the streets with a vigour that few generations have known. These schools provided  varying levels of competence.  H.C. Barnard’s A Short History of English Education [Uni. of London Press, 1952] describes one such Dame school…

In ev’ry village mark’d with little spire

Embow’r’d in trees and hardly known to fame.

There dwells, in lowly shed, and mean attire,

A matron old, whom we Schoolmistress name;

Who boasts unruly brats with birch to tame;

They grieven sore, in piteous durance pent,

Aw’d by the pow’r of this relentless dame;

And oft-times, on vagaries idly bent,

For unkempt hair, or task unconn’d, are sorely bent.

This poem was written in 1742, but the circumstances of schooling did not alter for a long time. The birch was the prime motivator for learning and the punishment for low achievement. Tom Paine had to get out of town when he wrote Rights of Man in 1791, but a subsequent rise of radicalism disposed influential thought towards more humane attitudes. Pressure was put upon the Church to provide philanthropic schools. Their Charity Schools run by the clergy emphasised Religious Education and Reading. Rote learning was a feature. The birch encouraged memorisation.

Such Church schools, despite their short-comings, provoked community pressure for public schooling. Encyclopaedists demanded state-run secular schooling and, so, schooling became a political football field with many codes, rules and was referee-dominant. Adam Smith said [Wealth of Nations, 1776] “Though the State was to derive no advantage from the instruction of the inferior ranks of the people, it would still deserve its attention that they should not be altogether uninstructed.”  Since the Government gave grants to schools for their operation, their progress needed monitoring. Inspectors were appointed [1840] to supervise the training of  pupil-teachers, report on the school’s activities and provide advice. The founder of English elementary education, Kay-Shuttleworth was before his time with his beliefs in the cultivation of learning habits, training in useful life skills and ‘development of intelligence’, as it was called.  He saw the school as a centre for social life and culture. Inspectors were central to the encouragement of developmental learning. His dreams were shattered, however. Testing by the Inspectors of schools was introduced.

Blame Robert Lowe for this misuse of quality control. With him at the helm of the Education Department after 1859, the infamous  ‘payment by results’ was started, the simplistic notion of testing as a indicator/motivator of learning.  It was called the Revised Code [1862], a document produced by the Education Department that had statutory force. A law was passed that specified certain standards. In Mathematics, for instance,…

1. pupils must write from dictation the numbers 1-20;

2. pupils must add and subtract orally the numbers from 1-10;

3. pupils must add, subtract, and multiply correctly in writing all numbers from 1-10;

4. pupils must perform in writing long division on numbers 1-1000;

5. pupils must calculate correctly problems involving money;

6. pupils must calculate correctly conversions and problems with measures of weight, length and distance.

Inspectors were obliged to test each child on what was called the ‘three Rs’. School classes were graded and passing the test at each grade level was essential. The school did not receive a grant for any child who failed. Punishment and fear of failure became established as an educational nostrum that has lasted for a century and a half.

Co-educationists, Kay-Shuttleworth and Matthew Arnold were beside themselves with disappointment and angst, but were unsuccessful in their reform efforts for many years, They were very lonely. The populace cared little and teachers were demoralised, passive and frightened. There was a temptation to falsify records and all teaching was of the didactic, jug-to-mug kind. Hostility developed between teachers and inspectors and the quality of teaching declined seriously. Testing had caused a monumental mess.

There are many outstanding novels of the period that describe the levels of school-based torturous and barbarous boredom.

During this period, educational thought was also being energised by people who held alternative views of the nature of learning. Pestalozzi, a Swiss gent [1746-1827] and practical schoolie, agreed with Frenchman Rousseau 1712-1778. [Remember his Emile ?] that a child was a child who had an idiosyncratic nature and individual needs and, therefore, could not be taught according to some preconceived theory of learning, such as fear of failure.  Learning and a pupil’s desire to learn resided within each individual. German Froebel went along with this and, knowing that children like play and like learning, the two could be combined in a schooling situation without any fear of testing and its deleterious effects. He developed the notion of a kindergarten , a happy place where the children are the plants which grow there but grow better when encouraged by a teacher-gardener. Italian Maria Montessori [1870-1952] applied this notion to her school using special apparatus and encouraging  freedom to learn without special class-methods.

These educational gurus valued the learning capacity of each child and would have been seriously at odds with present-day educrats.  It took a few generations for their ideas to materialise on a general basis during the late 20th Century.  Primary schools tended to establish themselves as sit-stilleries until the 1960s, as left-over Inspectorial operations  maintained the  practice of testing classes to see if they were up to scratch. The use of paper and pencil dominated each day’s activities, classroom silence was treasured and the only noise heard around schools was the voice of teachers sermonising from the front of the classroom where all pupils faced a large chalkboard used only by the teacher. It was standard practice. Group and maieutic strategies were seldom if ever undertaken. Heavy testing programs by school principals tended to encourage the use of these chalk-talk routines. Schools were dull and heavily routinised places.  Pupils were seldom anxious to continue with the  feckless routines past leaving-age. Most  left as soon as they could.

The blitz of World War 2 made a huge difference to schooling in England. Schools couldn’t be organised as tidily or strictly as they had been. Teachers found that children learned better than they had ever done when they talked with each other, undertook learning together, handled material that took the place of scarce paper and pencils; and were not restricted by  age-grade classifications. Over the next two decades, primary classes in various LEAs [Local Education Authorities], especially Hertfordshire, Bristol, Oxfordshire and the West Riding of Yorkshire, sparkled with learning efforts and joy of achievement that had never been experienced before. Overseas countries sent observers who returned to their country of origin, excited by the prospect of pupilling school clients in a variety of exciting learning centres using the whole contiuuum of teaching strategies; and developing individual learning styles that would produce primary school graduates who might demand similar treatment along the remaining compulsory  schooling track; and thus emerge from schooling as creative tertiary students and job seekers with style and ambition.

In Australia, things went well for a while. Public schooling was thematically structured. Part of each state’s cumbersome education departments, to which legislatures had added all sorts of operations to satisfy non-compulsory lobbyists, there remained a primary and secondary schooling section at its centre. But these parts of compulsory schooling had to compete for finances, structures, resources and attention in useless, damaging, time-consuming contests. They became vulnerable to all sorts of ideas and pressures.

Onslaughts from moral rights campaigners and back-to-basics kitschers during the 1970s and 1980s weakened the ideological fabric of  learning-to-learn movements. On its knees already from these onslaughts, compulsory schooling succumbed to  the politically powerful business and management industry that persuaded legislators to believe that schools should be run as businesses were. This movement had drastic consequences from which it has yet to recover. [See Cullen Phil :Back to Drastics, USQ 2006]. Control of schooling was given to parvenus who presented themselves well at interview and showed impressive biographical records. Advice was sought  from ‘experts’ who knew very little about schooling. This is well illustrated in the Brisbane Courier Mail’s cartoon of 18 November 2008 by Sean Leahy [click ‘Visiting Experts’ in the side-bar of this presentation] who sums up, in a most perceptive way, the reaction to Queensland’s low test results of the time.

In 1988 or thereabouts, an attempt had also been made in Queensland to have the blind lead the blind with administrative exchanges between various levels of schooling.  Principals and Secondary Principals swopped roles as did Primary and Secondary School Inpsectors.… a monumental blunder. It is said that life and sparkle drained from school undertakings. Inspectors of schools, products of wide school experience who zealously guarded the spirit of each curriculum guide; who ensured that higher achievement standards were constantly sought;  and who ‘flew with pollen on their wings’ to spread good ideas, were then banished entirely from the school landscape. The Top Controllers of Education Departments were also appointed to school positions from other government departments and serious advice was taken from University personnel with high academic credentials with none to little  school experience; and this continues. Few at the work-face know who’s who.

The draining of life and sparkle from schools in Britain, U.S.A. and Australia has been quite noticeable during the 1990s and since.  Instead of looking for root causes, each country has now adopted a bogan mentality and blamed those who had already suffered the most…the schools and the teachers. They must account for their actions to  totalitarian legislators who are forcing teachers to give standardised tests to every child, whether their parents want to participate or not….so that political platitudes can be broadcast about what ‘we have done to improve education’.

It’s back to 1862 with Matthew Arnold’s plea to return ‘intelligent life’ to the classroom to replace the ‘deadness, slackness and discouragement’ that testing had caused; back to the Minimal Competency Movement in the U.S.[called ‘graduated flunking’]  and the Assessment of Performance in Britain [Maggie’s Mess] that ran off the rails when it was realised that narrow, judgemental, fear-driven testing had no place in complex learning environments. Primary schools and pupils and teachers will have to endure another set of quixotic reforms for a while.

Here we go again.    The one thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history.