Pencil Pushing


I spent some time over the last couple of weeks working on college-related things with the kids. We were looking at various schools and trying to sort out some application and scholarship choices. In discussing options, we began to wonder about ACT scores, specifically which university has the highest average composite ACT scores. Several schools have an average ACT of 34, including Yale (CT), Harvey Mudd (CA), and the California Institute of Technology (also CA, of course). Then we wondered which university has the lowest composite ACT scores on average. Shaw University (NC) had the lowest that we could find, with an average composite score of 14. Fourteen may be the true lowest average or perhaps schools with lower ones don’t bother to report these scores! The national college and university average for composite ACT scores is currently 22 (out of a possible 36).

Money, Money, Money

The ACT is just one of the dozens of standardized tests schools use to sort and rank students throughout their scholastic careers. A Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings report from November 2012 estimates states spend $1.7 billion per year on standardized testing. And let’s not forget that this sum does not include what parents spend! For although, Illinois, for example, has made it compulsory for all high school students to take the ACT and pays for them to do so, Illinois is no longer requiring the ACT with Writing. So if your student is applying to a school that demands the writing portion, you’ll be paying for that out of pocket (currently $50.50 per student) because your student will have to take the test a second time at a testing center. If you need to send your students’ scores to more than four schools, you’ll pay $11 for each additional report. And if your kid needs help studying for the ACT, you may decide to fork over money for books ($10 and up) or classes (which can run hundreds of dollars), all of which contributes to the very lucrative standardized testing industry (ACT, SAT, and half a dozen other major players—along with several smaller companies).

Testing Dynasties

But high schools students didn’t wake up one day and collectively demand a standardized test or a standardized testing industry, so where did all this testing start? A University of Iowa professor introduced a version of the ACT in 1959. The SAT is even older; it was first administered to high school students in 1926. Both of these tests, however, are Johnny-come-latelies to the world of standardized testing. To find the beginnings, you have to go back—way back—to China in the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220). That’s right. Standardized testing is more than 2,000 years old. The Chinese wanted a way to test men hoping to train for civil servant positions. Subsequent dynasties tweaked the original test, and like today, over the centuries there were arguments against this sort of testing (as some scholars disliked the rote memorization of Confucian texts for the test), but the system was used in one form or another until 1905!

Just as the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) was abolishing the Chinese scheme, the United States was adopting its own testing system. The College Board (maker of the SAT) was founded in 1900 to create a standardized admission test for colleges. The first essay-style exam was offered in 1901 and taken by almost a thousand students in 69 locations.

The modern standardized intelligence (IQ) test was also developed in the early 1900s. Alfred Binet (1857–1911), a French psychologist, and Theodore Simon (1872–1961), a medical student of Binet’s, created the Binet-Simon Scale in 1905—the precursor to the Stanford-Binet test still used today. This sort of IQ testing was adapted for U.S. army assignments in World War I, where tests were administered to recruits to select officer candidates. Army testing, in turn, was applied to education by Carl Brigham (1890–1943), who had worked on the officer recruitment project. Brigham was hired by the College Board to create a standardized test for college entrance, which resulted in the aforementioned 1926 SAT.

Tiny Bubbles

In the late 1930s, IBM made their contribution to the standardized testing world, patenting the IBM 805 Test Scoring Machine, which read marks made by a graphite lead pencil using wire brushes to scan the page for electrical conductivity. The technology allowed automatic scoring of answer sheets for the multiple choice test sections. By the early 1960s, the electrical method gave way to optical test scanning machines, which caused generations of students—from elementary school to high school and beyond—to learn how to completely fill in their answer bubbles.

In 2012 more than 3.2 million students took either the SAT or the ACT. That number is only likely to go up as more states make taking one of the tests mandatory for graduation. All of which means that test anxiety, the debate over the use and abuse of testing, and No. 2 pencils are likely to be around for a long time.

Text: © Rebecca Bigelow
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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