The First Race to the Top

William Reese:

FOR the nearly 50 million students enrolled in America’s public schools, tests are everywhere, whether prepared by classroom teachers or by the ubiquitous testing industry. Central to school accountability, they assume familiar shapes and forms. Multiple choice. Essay. Aptitude. Achievement. NAEP, ACT, SAT.
To teachers everywhere, the message is clear: Raise test scores. No excuses. The stakes are very high, as the many cheating scandals unfolding nationally reveal, including most spectacularly the recent indictment of 35 educators in Atlanta.
But we should also be wondering, where did all this begin? It turns out that the race to the top has a lot of history behind it.
Members of the Boston School Committee fired the first shots in the testing wars in the summer of 1845. Traditionally, an examination committee periodically inspected the local English grammar schools, questioned some pupils orally, then wrote brief, perfunctory reports that were filed and forgotten.
Many Bostonians smugly assumed that their well-funded public schools were the nation’s best. They, along with many visitors, had long praised the local system, which included a famous Latin school and the nation’s first public high school, founded in 1821.
Citizens were in for a shock. For the first time, examiners gave the highest grammar school classes a common written test, conceived by a few political activists who wanted precise measurements of school achievement. The examiners tested 530 pupils — the cream of the crop below high school. Most flunked. Critics immediately accused the examiners of injecting politics into the schools and demeaning both teachers and pupils.
The testing groundwork was laid in 1837, when a lawyer and legislator in Massachusetts named Horace Mann became secretary of the newly created State Board of Education, part of the Whig Party’s effort to centralize authority and make schools modern and accountable. After a fact-finding trip abroad, Mann claimed in 1844 in a nationally publicized report that Prussia’s schools were more child-friendly and superior to America’s. Boston’s grammar masters, insulted, attacked Mann in print, and he returned the favor. In December, some Whig reformers, including Mann’s close friend Samuel Gridley Howe, were elected to the School Committee and soon landed on the examining committee.