A history of large-scale testing in the us and its implications for the use of assessment to support instruction

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A history of large-scale testing in the US and its implications for the use of assessment to support instruction

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Dylan Wiliam

Institute of Education, University of London



The aim of this paper is not to provide a history of how assessment has supported instruction in American schools—given the lack of good evidence on this point, such a paper would either be very short, or highly speculative. Instead, it is to attempt to account for the current prospects for integrating assessment with instruction in the United States in the light of the history of assessment more generally.

The main story of this paper is how one highly specialized role for assessment—the selection of students for higher education—and a very specialized solution to the problem —the use of an aptitude test—gained acceptance, and eventually came to dominate other methods of selecting students for college, and ultimately influenced the methods of assessment used for other purposes.
The paper begins with a brief account of the creation of the College Entrance Examination Board and its attempts to bring some coherence to the use of written examinations in university admissions. The criticisms that were made of the use of such examinations led to explorations of the use of intelligence tests, which had originally been used to diagnose learning difficulties in Parisian school students but which had been modified in the United States to enable blanket testing of army recruits in the closing stages of the first world war. Subsequent sections detail how the army intelligence test was developed into the ‘Scholastic Aptitude Test’ and how this test came to dominate university admissions in the United States. The final sections discuss how assessment in schools developed over the latter part of the 20th century including some of the alternative methods of assessment, such as portfolios, which were explored in the 1980s and 1990s, and how these were ultimately eradicated by the press for cheap scalable methods of testing for accountability—a role that the technology of aptitude testing was well-placed to fill.

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