The Origins of Standardized Testing


Justin Tuttle, Student Writer

Standardized testing is a practice present throughout the lives of many generations. Nearly every person across America is familiar with the exhausting four-hour exams that are used throughout the country. To high school students, standardized test scores can seem like the defining moment of their academic lives. For some, they are tickets to college acceptance. To others, they are a mere hindrance in teenage life. Core to the American education system, standardized tests have made an impact on countless individuals, but where exactly did they come from?

The earliest recorded instances of standardized testing come from Imperial China. Beginning during the rule of the Han Dynasty from 206 BCE to 220 CE standardized testing was utilized to select young men for positions in China’s imperial bureaucracy. The test was very difficult, requiring extensive knowledge of classic Confucian texts, Chinese law and government, and proficiency in public speaking. Over the next two millennia, the test gradually evolved. The most notable changes occurred during the Tang and Song Dynasties. Not only did the number of test participants increase dramatically from about 30,000 to 400,000 tests per year. The test’s repertoire was expanded to include areas of study reminiscent of present-day testing. These new areas of study included writing, math, and poetry. More familiar aspects of the test implemented during this time were anti-corruption measures. Firstly, all tests were graded anonymously. Secondly, test takers were assigned a number used to identify their tests rather than their names. China’s imperial exams fell out of use with the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. Despite the disappearance of the original test, some core concepts developed during its use are still utilized today.

Long after the foundational implementation of China’s Imperial testing came Standardized testing in America. The foundations for the future of standardized testing were laid in 1845. At the time, most tests were taken orally. Horace Mann, now considered the father of standardized tests in the U.S., disagreed with this testing strategy. His belief stemmed from what he learned while visiting schools in Europe. Upon his return, he was convinced that written tests were superior for their ability to be reference by many people at any time. From 1837-1848 Mann was the secretary of the Massachusetts state board of education. Using his authority, in 1845 he mandated that his board members craft and administer written exams to students in schools across Boston. These tests were not seen by the teachers within the schools and were used to evaluate school performance and education quality.

           Despite Mann’s early progress, widespread standardized testing in the U.S. didn’t begin until the early 20th century. The most recognizable test in the U.S., the SAT, didn’t see use until 1926. It was originally adapted from the IQ tests used by the U.S. military during WW1 to group incoming soldiers based on their mental capabilities. The original SAT contained two math sub-tests and seven verbal skill sub-tests. The latter of which was removed during the first decade of the test’s use. Over nearly a century, the SAT has rapidly grown and evolved into a staple of American education.

Today, the SAT contains two subtests reading, and math each with several sections. The test utilizes some of the foundational concepts developed in imperial China for test security. Of these, the most notable are number assignment and anonymous grading. Currently, the SAT is intended to indicate a student’s readiness for college attendance. With 8 million students taking the test in the 2018  – 2019 school year alone, it is undoubtedly here to stay.