Explore 170 years of American assessments

Today is test day.

In a quiet classroom, children stare at the preprinted sheets in front of them. Some students squirm; they’re nervous. The assessment is timed and they only have 60 minutes to answer all of the questions before them. It’s a lot of pressure for kids who are, for the most part, only 12 or 13 years old. Over the next several weeks, children all over the city will experience similar levels of anxiety as they take identical tests.

Their teacher is nervous too. This test will be used to judge not only students’ abilities but also the quality of their schooling. The results will be public. Parents will discuss them—and so will administrators, legislators, and other school authorities. In short, there’s a lot riding on this test.

When the reports finally roll in that summer, the scores are dismal. On average, students answer only 30% of the questions correctly. Citizens are in shock. Newspapers are packed with articles and letters to the editor, some attacking and some praising the results. People passionately debate the value of the assessment.

Pop quiz: What year is it?

You might think it was 2015. That year, thousands of eighth-grade students across the country took the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading assessment, a paper-and-pencil assessment that took up to 60 minutes for students to complete.

In 2015, only 34% of eighth graders scored proficient on NAEP, triggering an onslaught of media coverage debating the quality of American education—as well as the quality of the tests themselves.

In reality, it’s 1845, and these children are taking America’s first mandated written assessment. It’s the first time external authorities have required that students take standardized written exams in order to measure their ability and achievement levels, but it won’t be the last. Over the next 170 years, standardized testing will become a widespread and, well, standard part of American education.

Let’s briefly explore how assessment has evolved—and, in many ways, stayed the same—between 1845 and today. As a comparison, we’ll note major innovations in transportation along the way.


In 1845, the first reported mandated written assessment in the United States takes place in Boston, Massachusetts. While only 530 students take this first assessment, thousands follow in their footsteps as standardized written assessments spread across the country in the decades following.

The same year, Robert William Thomson patents the first vulcanized rubber pneumatic tire—the type of tire now used on cars, bicycles, motorcycles, buses, trucks, heavy equipment, and aircraft. At this point, however, only the bicycle has been invented—and it still uses wooden wheels banded with iron.


While educators have always adapted to meet the needs of their students (consider the Socratic method of tailoring questions according to a student’s specific assertions, which has been around for more than two thousand years), the first formal adaptive test does not appear until 1905. Called the Binet-Simon intelligence test—and commonly known today as an intelligence quotient, or IQ, test—it features a variable starting level. The examiner then selects item sets based on the examinee’s performance on the previous set, providing a fully adaptive assessment.

Just two years earlier, in 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright made history with the first flight of their airplane in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. By 1905, the brothers are already soaring around in the Wright Flyer III, sometimes called the first “practical” fixed-wing aircraft.


Exactly seven decades after the first mandated written assessment in Massachusetts, the first multiple-choice tests are administered in Kansas in 1915. These three tests—one for grades 3–5, one for grades 6–8, and one for high school—are collectively known as the “Kansas Silent Reading Tests.” Devised the year prior by Dr. Frederick J. Kelly, each test consists of 16 short paragraphs and corresponding questions. Students have five minutes to read and answer as many questions as possible.

Standardization and speed seem to be hot topics in this decade. Only a few years earlier, in 1913, Henry Ford installed the first moving assembly line for the mass production of cars.


One of the most famous standardized academic assessments in the world is born: the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). The first administration is in 1926. Students have a little more than an hour and a half—97 minutes to be exact—to answer 315 questions about nine subjects, including artificial language, analogies, antonyms, and number series. Interestingly, the SAT comes after the similarly named Stanford Achievement Test, which was first published in 1922 (to differentiate the two, the Stanford tests are known by their edition numbers, the most recent version being the “Stanford 10” or “SAT-10”).

In 1927, just one year after the first SAT, the Sunbeam 1000 HP Mystery becomes the first car in the world to travel over 200 mph. The same year, production of the iconic Ford Model T comes to an end after more than 15 million cars have rolled off the assembly line.


Although multiple-choice tests were invented two decades earlier, it’s not until 1936 that they can be scored automatically. This year, the IBM 805 Test Scoring Machine sees its first large-scale use for the New York Regents exam. Experienced users can score around 800 answer cards per hour—the speed limited not by the machine itself but by the operator’s ability to insert cards into the machine and record the scores.

Meanwhile, in the world of transportation, the world is introduced to the first practical jet aircraft. The Heinkel He 178 becomes the world’s first turbojet-powered aircraft to take flight in 1939.


The SAT’s main rival is born in 1959, when the first American College Testing (ACT) is administered. Each of its four sections—English, mathematics, social studies, and natural sciences—takes 45 minutes to complete for a total test time of three hours.

That same year, in the skies above, the turbojet powers a new airspeed record as the Convair F-106 Delta Dart becomes the first aircraft to travel faster than 1,500 mph.


Although planning began in 1964, the first National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) takes place in 1969. Instead of today’s more well-known reading and math assessments, the first NAEP focuses on citizenship, science, and writing. It combines paper-and-pencil tests with interviews, cooperative activities, and observations of student behavior. There are no scores; NAEP only reports the percentage of students who could answer a question or complete an activity.

Also in 1969, Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin become the first humans to set foot on the moon. A few months later, Charles Conrad and Alan Bean become the third and fourth individuals to take a stroll on the lunar surface. Back on earth, the first Boeing 747 takes flight.


It’s hard to pinpoint the very first computerized adaptive test (CAT): A few claim David J. Weiss develops the first one in either 1970 or 1971; others give this honor to Abraham G. Bayroff of the US Army Behavioral Research Laboratory, who experimented with “programmed testing machines” and “branching tests” in the 1960s; and some point earlier still to the work of the Educational Testing Service (ETS) in the 1950s. Regardless, computerized adaptive testing gains great momentum in the 1970s. In 1975, the first Conference on Computerized Adaptive Testing takes place in Washington, DC. By the end of the decade, the US Department of Defense has started investigating the possibility of large-scale computerized adaptive testing.

In the middle of the decade, in July 1976, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird shoots across the sky at a whopping 2,193 mph—setting an airspeed record that has yet to be broken.


Computerized adaptive tests start moving out of the laboratory and into the real world. One of the first operational computerized adaptive testing programs in education is the College Board’s ACCUPLACER college placement tests. In 1985, the four tests—reading comprehension, sentence skills, arithmetic, and elementary algebra—are used in a low-stakes environment to help better place students into college English and mathematics courses.

For some students, the ACCUPLACER might be their first experience with a computer—but not for all of them. In 1981, IBM introduced its first personal computer, the IBM 5150. A few years later, in 1984, Apple debuted the first Macintosh. This decade also sees the Rutan Voyager fly around the globe without stopping or refueling, making it the first airplane to do so. The 1986 trip takes the two pilots nine days and three minutes to complete.


After nearly 20 years of research and development, the computerized adaptive version of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery—more commonly known as the CAT-ASVAB—earns the distinction of being the first large-scale computerized adaptive test to be administered in a high-stakes setting.* First implemented in 1990 at a select number of test sites, the CAT-ASVAB goes nationwide in 1996 in part thanks to its reduced testing time and lower costs in comparison to the paper-and-pencil version (called the P&P-ASVAB). Today, the CAT-ASVAB takes about half the time (1.5 hours) of the P&P-ASVAB (3 hours).

(1996 also sees the advent of the first Renaissance Star Reading® assessment, a computerized adaptive test that quickly measures students’ reading levels.)

Another brainchild of the 1970s also comes to fruition in this decade: The Global Positioning System (GPS) is declared fully operational in 1995, with 27 satellites orbiting the globe.


The new millennium ushers in a new era of American testing. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) mandates state testing in reading and math annually in grades 3–8 and once in high school. While the Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994 (IASA) had previously required all states to develop educational standards and assess students, not all states were able to comply—and those that did not faced few consequences. This time, things are different and states must comply with NCLB or risk losing their federal funding.

The new millennium also sees GPS come to consumer electronics when the United States decides to stop degrading GPS signals used by the public. For the first time, turn-by-turn navigation is possible for civilians. This decade also sees the introduction of Facebook (2004), YouTube (2005), the iPhone (2007), and the Tesla Roadster (2008).


Have we reached testing overload? A 2014 report titled Testing Overload in America’s Schools finds that average students in grades 3–5 spend 15 hours taking district and state exams each year. Students in grades 6–8 spend even more time, with 16 hours each year spent on standardized assessments. On average, students in grades 3–8 take 10 standardized assessments each year, although some are found to take as many as 20 standardized tests in a single year. Their younger and older counterparts generally take 6 standardized tests per year, totaling four hours per year in grades K–2 and nine hours per year in grades 9–12.

This means a typical student may take 102 standardized tests before graduating high school, and some will take many more than that!

But things are changing. The passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015—which replaces NCLB—doesn’t eliminate mandated assessments, but it does offer states new levels of flexibility and control over their assessments. Around the same time, states across the nation reconsider the benefits and drawbacks of mandated assessments. Several eliminate high school graduation exams. Some limit the amount of time districts can devote to testing. Others discontinue achievement tests for specific grades or subjects. A few allow parents and guardians to opt their children out of some or even all standardized exams.

Meanwhile self-driving cars navigate city streets, flying drones deliver groceries to customers’ doors, the Curiosity rover is taking selfies on Mars, and you can order almost anything—from almost anywhere in the world—right from your phone.


Over 170 years ago, it took more than three weeks to get from New York to Los Angeles by train and one hour to finish the country’s first mandated written exam. Today the trip requires less than six hours in an airplane, but many assessments still take an hour or longer—and students take many more tests than they used to.

But do they need to be so long? With all of the technological innovations over the years and the great leaps in learning science, is it possible to create shorter tests that still provide educators with meaningful data?

It can be done—and it has been done. Next week, we’ll explore the technology and test designs that make it possible to get reliable, valid data in 20 minutes or less.

*Some claim this honor should go to the Novell corporation’s certified network engineer (CNE) examination, the Education Testing Service’s (ETS) Graduate Record Examination (GRE), or the National Council of State Boards of Nursing’s (NCSBN) NCLEX nursing licensure examination, all of which debuted computerized adaptive tests in the early 1990s.

What does the future hold for assessment? Get insights from an assessment expert in this on-demand webinar.



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  1. Magaly Cepeda says:

    I am just amazed on how teaching, exams and expectations have changed throughout the years.

    • Janice Raby Neely says:

      I can’t believ just how much changes we have had. The main focus has always been the same, and that’s on reading.

  2. Angela Domond says:

    That was an interesting history of exams.

  3. Jody Steinhaus says:

    Wow! Education has really changed. What a century today has been!

  4. Rita Platt says:

    Fun history.

  5. Andrea says:

    No, tests do NOT need to be that long and the people who create and decide upon the tests need to make sure they are “testing” what they are supposed to be. A reading or math test on-line should NOT be testing technology skills.

  6. Katie Wiltz says:

    This was so interesting to read!!!

  7. carly says:

    How quickly some things change and how slowly others change. I was in elementary school in the 1960’s. No technology. Read to Dick and Jane. Had Friday spelling tests. Teachers were not held accountable for their results. 30 years later, seeing education as a parent, I was sad that many things in education had not progressed such as the Friday spelling test and the reading of textbooks with chapter tests and little hands-on engagement. Now as an educator, I am aware of many great teaching strategies surrounding differentiation and student-centered learning, something unheard of when I was in school. And yet, there’s so much more emphasis on testing and teacher accountability that many of the rich lessons that could be implemented are supplanted by the time I spend administering tests.

  8. RENEE P GRAHAM says:

    So, all things come and go and come and go. I think it just goes to show that we don’t need anything new. We need to pick the most effective and stick with it.

    • Mary Meyer says:

      The problem is that “the powers that be” keep wanting to prove that they have a new better way to do it. They think there is one way to teach to all students and that is their way. And most of them HAVE NEVER BEEN IN A CLASSROOM! We need to use a variety of teaching techniques until we find the one that works for each particular child.

  9. Alecia Walkuski says:

    I think that meaningful testing requires much more than a multiple-choice option. Students have strengths in many areas, and the the influence of a “bad” result from a standardized test can have lasting consequences on students’ emotional health. I would much rather see a move toward portfolio and performance assessments that provide students the ability to show growth over time in a way that is very much under their own control rather than a continuation of standardized “bubble” tests.

  10. Lisa Capon says:

    Interesting to see how testing has evolved over time. I wonder where technology will lead us next?

  11. Jennifer Whitworth says:

    The bar is SO much higher than it used to be!

  12. Melissa Berry says:

    Wow!! Changes galore!!

  13. shonda Hill says:

    Amazing how things can change with our knowledge!

  14. Kelsie Haggard says:

    Wow! Very interesting testing facts.

  15. Lynn Humphrey says:

    Very cool article! Lots of interesting facts. Loved this.

  16. Alisha Taylor says:

    Wow how the exams have really changed over time. The expectations have really changed, along with the amount of time spent taking tests. I can not even imagine how the exams will change as our world keeps evolving and new technology develops.

  17. LeeAnn Needham says:

    Very interesting. I want to cry watching my kids take the state tests here in Texas. $th grade takes reading, writing, and math tests. Each test is rated at 2 hours, but they can take up to 4. What 10 year old (or even adult) can work at 100% for 4 hours straight. Unit tests in every subject, every couple of weeks, practice STAAR tests before the real ones, benchmark testing….good lord! What happen to learning is fun. Don’t get me started on how we have cut out art, music, drama,…

  18. Virginia Wiedenfeld says:

    This was an interesting history of standardized tests! So sad that so much time is spent on administering test instead of teaching!

  19. Chardee Watowich says:

    Interesting article! It was eye-opening to read the history of standardized testing and how it has changed over the decades. My opinion is that standardized tests can serve a purpose, but we tend to over-do them these days, placing too much emphasis (or too much finger-pointing?) on their results. I feel that regular classroom assessment is a more accurate indicator of a student’s ability/performance than standardized tests.

  20. laura says:

    Very interesting!

  21. shonda Hill says:

    Very Interesting!

  22. Tom Beauchamp says:

    This is a great timeline of the history of testing. It really lets you see how the process has changed but yet stays the same.

  23. Doug Abend says:

    A question posed by another educator to me in regards to the (over)use of standardized testing: Does weighing the pig more often cause the pig to grow? In other words, how does information gleaned by testing inform instruction. And does more data automatically mean better instruction?

  24. Nicole Erwin says:


  25. Maria Martinez says:

    Very informative.

  26. Terri says:

    This is a great article. 1845!! I think our schools focus too much on testing and neglect teaching sometimes. Assessments are important but not the end of learning.

  27. Trinette Frazier says:

    Just a painful reminder of my college friend who is much smarter than me, but nearly flunked out because of testing. Not every student is a test taker. As pressure and intensity rises, we are turning more and more students into smart individuals with overwhelming test anxiety.

  28. Mary Brown says:

    Great information about the history of testing. Also, liked the analogy with what was happening technologically in the world simultaneously.

  29. Virginia Travis says:

    This was a very interesting article about the history of testing.

  30. s. bellomo says:

    I think that refocusing on the fundamentals is so much more important than teaching to the test. If the fundamentals of reading and math are stressed the better the scores will be.

  31. Interesting! I just hope some of the testing now stops! In our system, they are taking three benchmark tests which are about as stressful as the main end of the year test. Plus we STAR test, but this is not as stressful.

  32. This was very insightful information. To know that students have had to endure standardized testing for so long is shocking to me. Being in the classroom on a daily basis, I get to see first hand how all these assessments are affecting children. Spending 16-20 hours within a school year taking assessments takes away from the thoughtful and effective lessons that could be taking place. It is sad to see that we live in a day and age where standardized testing is on the rise and puts so much pressure on both students and teachers. I think that the initial idea of a standardized test would have been more effective if we didn’t take it upon ourselves to assess students all the time.

  33. Carol roberts says:

    Very interesting!

  34. Krystal Dozier says:

    This article provided a great deal of insight about the history of testing.

  35. Sandra Cunningham says:

    I’ve never been at school as a student or teacher without testing…and the anxiety of testing…things have changed but I’d rather focus on teaching than test taking strategies.

  36. Ami Edwards says:

    Great article! Way too much testing is going on now for sure.

  37. Graciela Lopez says:

    Very interesting information about all the history of testing.

  38. P R says:

    Interesting history.

  39. Veronica Gonzalez says:

    I am so amazed and can not believe how much changes we have had throughout the years. At the end main focus has always focused on reading.

  40. Adriana Bocanegra says:

    Good information

  41. L. Q-T says:

    Interesting article on how assessment has changed but unfortunately as educators we see the stress it has on students. The pressure to pass is great on all. The focus should be on fun interactive, collaborative hands on learning with students engaged, not drilled on test strategies.

  42. Jason says:

    So there is a good chance educators have been complaining about one form or another of testing for 170 years. Pretty safe to say that testing is not going away any time soon…..

  43. David Keech says:

    The more things change, the more they remain the same. We have assessed for a variety of purposes over the years, but we always look at results through different lenses. Depending on the political climate and those in power, assessments become a popular topic that fuels and drives perceptions in society.

  44. Julie says:

    This is such an interesting article. Often times I feel that we test more than we teach. If we test this often how are the scores every going to improve?

  45. Laura says:

    Interesting facts about how some things change and others stayed the same.

  46. Laura says:

    Like the comparing story

  47. Stephanie says:

    Some fun history.

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