LAWRENCE — For the past 50 years, standardized tests have been the norm in American schools, a method proponents say determines which schools are not performing and helps hold educators accountable. Yet for the past 20 years, it has become clear that testing has failed to improve education or hold many accountable, according to a University of Kansas researcher whose new book details its history.
“An Age of Accountability: How Standardized Testing Came to Dominate American Schools and Compromise Education” by John Rury, professor emeritus of educational leadership & policy studies at KU, tells the story of how testing became a central focus of American education policy roughly from 1970 to 2020. The book details how it rose to prominence, persisted through generations of leaders and how policymakers routinely ignored evidence that the tests were not improving education for most students.
In the book’s introduction, Rury wrote how testing in American schools dates back to the 1840s but really took hold in the 1970s, when contemporary accountability began with a “minimum competency” high school graduation test in Florida. Other states subsequently adopted a similar approach, especially in the South.
“One of the big questions with these exams,” Rury said, “was setting cut scores. And there was really no scientific way to decide that. In Florida, they set it arbitrarily at 70% because that was the score needed to pass classes generally. The consequence of that was many kids failing, especially African American and poor students.”
The book also covers questions of race and standardized exams. Rury described how tests were called out for racial and cultural bias early on, but the assessment industry responded, and by the 1990s organizations such as the National Urban League backed testing as a way to help address the achievement gap.
Testing has fluctuated in how much attention it gained, and the book outlines how the 1980s became a decade of transition.
“Then testing took a back seat in reform conversations,” Rury said, “and it wasn’t until the '90s that proficiency became a political priority and testing again became a focal point.”
“An Age of Accountability,” published by Rutgers University Press in its New Directions in the History of Education series, documents how American students scored poorly on international tests, especially compared to Japanese students in the late '80s. This helped set the stage for standardized testing being used to hold teachers accountable for not educating American students to the levels of certain international peers. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton both embraced testing in the '90s and even proposed national tests of proficiency. While both met stiff political opposition, it set the stage for No Child Left Behind, the signature education policy of President George W Bush.
The younger Bush campaigned on tales of a “Texas Miracle,” dramatic claims of improvements in schools when he was governor, despite much evidence to the contrary, Rury wrote. The national legislation that followed his arrival in D.C. required students in certain grades to show proficiency in reading and math. More than 20 years later, testing policy remains central to American education.
“All along, since the 1970s, many psychometricians, the people who build assessments, said, ‘Look, you can’t do this with these tests.’ On exit exams, kids will mess up, miss a couple questions below the cut line and not get a diploma, all for just a few questions on a single test. There are major consequences for that in life. My argument is that politicians consistently ignored that. Some even proposed using norm-referenced tests as gateway exams, which is ridiculous. But it all set the stage for No Child Left Behind.”
In the book’s conclusion, Rury outlines how, despite its troubled history, standardized testing continues to be the norm in American education.
“What accountability often does is it really compromises the validity of the test,” Rury said. “This is the underlying problem. When you have a system where people’s jobs are on the line, many are going to find a way to manipulate the assessment process.”
While there are long-standing problems with standardized testing, Rury said his hope is that readers realize there have always been those saying that standardized testing was never meant to be used in this way and to think twice before advocating returning to overreliance on these measures, such as No Child Left Behind.
“These tests are a very poor measure of what kids are doing in schools. That’s the Achilles heel, since most of the variation in scores is due to non-school factors,” Rury said. “I’d rather see measuring growth. That requires testing at the beginning of the school year and again at the end to see how much students have learned. We hear about failing schools, but even there, students often show growth when it’s examined. Saying that current tests are holding schools accountable thus can be very misleading if they’re only administered once a year. I prefer focusing on changes in achievement and using tests not to punish or stigmatize, but to help schools learn how to better serve their students.”