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History of Standardized Testing in the United States

  • 1838 American educators begin articulating ideas that would soon be translated into the formal assessment of student achievement.
  • 1840 to 1875 establishes several main currents in the history of American educational testing including formal written testing begins to replace oral examinations administered by teachers and schools at roughly the same time as schools changed their mission from servicing the elite to educating the masses
  • Pre Civil War, schools use externally mandated written examinations to assess student progress in specific curricular areas and to aid in a variety of administrative and policy decisions.
  • 1875 to the end of World War I, the development and administration of a range of new testing instruments from measuring mental ability to attempting to assess how well students were prepared for college brought to the forefront several critical issues related not only to testing but to the broader goals of American education
  • 1890 Harvard President Charles William Eliot proposes a cooperative system of common entrance examinations that would be acceptable to colleges and professional schools throughout the country, in lieu of the separate examinations given by each school.
  • 1900 College Entrance Examination Board is established and in 1901, the first examinations were administered around the country in nine subjects.
  • 1900 - 1932  1,300 achievement tests are on the market, as compared to about 400 tests of “mental capacities." 92 High school tests, vocational tests, assessments of athletic ability, and a variety of miscellaneous tests are developed to supplement the intelligence tests, and statewide testing programs were becoming more common
  • 1905 French psychologist Alfred Binet begins developing a standardized test of intelligence, work that would eventually be incorporated into a version of the modern IQ test, dubbed the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test.
  • World War I standardized testing is standard practice: aptitude quizzes called Army Mental Tests were conducted to assign US servicemen jobs during the war effort.
  • 1912 Stanford Professor Lewis Terman marks the beginning of large-scale individual intelligence testing in characteristics of the Binet-Simon tradition.
  • 1914 the National Education Association endorses the kind of standardized testing that Rice had been urging for two decades. The timing was exquisite: on one front, there was the “push” of new technology that promised to be valuable to testing, and on the other, a heightened “pull” for methods to bring order to the chaotic schools.
  • Between 1908 and 1916, Edward Thorndike and his students at Columbia University developed standardized achievement tests in arithmetic, handwriting, spelling, drawing, reading, and language ability.
  • 1916 the College Board begins to develop comprehensive examinations in six subjects. These examinations included performance types of assessment such as essay questions, sight translation of foreign languages, and written compositions.
  • 1917 and 1918 6,500 children are given the Stanford-Binet, as well as a new test written by Arthur Otis (one of Lewis Terman’s students who would eventually be credited with the invention of the multiple-choice format75).Oakland, California, was the site of one of the first attempts at large-scale intelligence testing of students.
  • 1917 Lewis Terman and a group of colleagues are recruited by the American Psychological Association to help the Army develop group intelligence tests and a group intelligence scale.Army testing during World War I ignited the most rapid expansion of the school testing movement.
  • By 1918, there are well over 100 standardized tests, developed by different researchers to measure achievement in the principal elementary and secondary school subjects.
  • Fall of 1920 the World Book publishes nearly half a million tests, and by 1930 Terman's intelligence and achievement tests (the latter published as the Stanford Achievement Test) had combined sales of some 2 million copies per year.
  • 1922 John Dewey laments the victory of the testers and quantifiers with these words: “Our mechanical, industrialized civilization is concerned with averages, with percents. The mental habit which reflects this social scene subordinates education and social arrangements based on averaged gross inferiorities and superiorities.”
  • 1925 a U.S. Bureau of Education Survey shows that intelligence and achievement tests are increasingly used to classify students.
  • 1926 the first SAT tests are administered.  Founded as the Scholastic Aptitude Test by the College Board, a nonprofit group of universities and other educational organizations. The original test lasted 90 minutes and consisted of 315 questions testing knowledge of vocabulary and basic math and even including an early iteration of the famed fill-in-the-blank analogies (e.g., blue:sky::____:grass). The test grew and by 1930 assumed its now familiar form, with separate verbal and math tests
  • 1929 the University of Iowa initiates the first major statewide testing program for high school students, directed by E.F. Lindquist.
  • By 1930 multiple-choice tests are firmly entrenched in the schools. Not surprisingly, the rapid spread of multiple choice tests kindled debate about their drawbacks. Critics accused them of encouraging memorization and guessing, of representing “reactionary ideals” of instruction, but to no avail. Efficiency and ‘‘objectivity’ won out.
  • 1935 high-speed computing is first applied to testing. Electronic data processing equipment was used to process massive numbers of tests. One report showed that the cost of administering the Strong Inventory of Vocational Interests dropped from $5 per test to $.50 per test as a result of the computer.
  • 1936  the first automatic test scanner is delveoped, a rudimentary computer called the IBM 805. It remained largely unchanged (save the occasional tweak) until 2005, when the analogies were done away with and a writing section was added.
  • By the late 1930s, Iowa tests are being made available to schools outside the State.
  • 1958, Iowa also introduces computerization to the scoring of tests and production of reports to schools.
  • 1965 The Elementary and Secondary Education Act in particular opens the way for new and increased uses of norm-referenced tests to evaluate programs.
  • In the21st century, however, the SAT and the ACT are just part of a gauntlet of tests students may face before reaching college. The College Board also offers SAT II tests, designed for individual subjects ranging from biology to geography. The marathon four-hour Advanced Placement examinations — which some universities accept for students who want to opt out of introductory college-level classes — remain popular: nearly 350,000 took the U.S. history AP test last year, the most popular subject test offered. There's also the PSAT, taken in the junior year as preparation for the full-blown SAT and as an assessment for the coveted National Merit Scholarships.
  • 2001 No Child Left Behind education reform is its expansion of state-mandated standardized testing as means of assessing school performance. Now most students are tested each year of grade school as well.
  • Testing of students in the United States is now 150 years old.


Brief History: Standardized Testing, By Dan Fletcher for Time, December 11, 2009  
A History of Educational Testing in the United States ( PDF, 987 KB, 31 pgs.)


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Educators and Parents on Testing

"Everything revolves around the test. The pace is way too fast for my son. He hates school. He has test anxiety. I have become very resentful of third grade. It has changed my previously confident, happy kid into a nervous wreck with dwindling self esteem."

- Kelli K., a parent in Indiana


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