Education Opinion

Reading List: The History of Testing and Measurement

By Jack Schneider — July 14, 2014 4 min read
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Since I’m off on vacation, I’ve asked Ethan Hutt—Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Maryland—to step in with a guest post.

You can never have too many book recommendations for summer reading—especially now that the Game of Thrones season is over and you’ve probably already watched every episode of Orange is the New Black twice. Jack was kind enough to ask me whether I would contribute my own “summer reading list” and I am more than happy to oblige. Since he has already provided you with an excellent set of books on Why Reform Fails, I thought I would provide a list of readings in an area that I spend a lot of time thinking (and worrying) about: the history of testing and measurement.

Given how much of education policy now turns on or is generated in response to the numbers and metrics produced by tests, I think this is a very important area to think about if you care about our schools. So here you go, 5, admittedly eclectic, selections for your summer reading enjoyment:

  1. The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould—this book is a classic and a good starting point for the uninitiated. Gould walks through some of the major scientific endeavors to measure man—his mind, his biological traits, and how they might be linked—including craniometry (the attempt to link skull size to intelligence), IQ testing, and other efforts to quantify man’s general intelligence. As with many good works in the history of science, Gould shows how tightly linked cultural values of both scientist and society are to the scientific pursuits of the time. It is hard to come away without wondering about the ways in which our cultural values continue to pervade our objective science in ways that we can’t see now but historians of the future will spend their careers pointing out.
  2. Testing Wars in the Public Schools: A Forgotten History by William Reese—while Gould is interested in efforts to study the biological dimensions of intelligence, Reese provides us with an introduction to the origins of testing in schools. As Reese shows, standardized tests have been a part of public schools for a very, very long time (try 1845). During that time reformers have used tests and test scores as a political tool—as a critique of current system and as an argument for the superiority of the reformer’s agenda. Given the frequency with which debates about standardized tests dominate discussions about our schools—whether it’s NAEP, PISA, or the forthcoming CCSS tests—this book provides some important historical perspective on the possibilities and limits of tests to achieve reform. That and the book has received some strong reviews by some pretty smart people.
  3. Merit: The History of a Founding Ideal from the American Revolution to the Twenty-First Century by Joseph Kett—one complaint I hear a lot these days is about the narrowing of what we value in schools and, perhaps, more broadly in society. This new book by historian Joseph Kett helps provide a broader perspective on this issue by putting the concept of “merit” into historical perspective. One key tension throughout this history is how merit should interact with other strongly held cultural values like equality and whether merit adheres to a person, to effort, or to the institutions we associate with.
  4. Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life by Theodore Porter—if you have ever wondered why quantitative information holds such cultural sway in America, then this is the book for you. Porter examines this question by drawing examples from a wide range of fields including cost-benefit analysis, laboratories, accounting, etc to argue that the spread of numbers in our society has less to do with the triumph of numbers driven objective science and more to do with the social and political pressures of needing to communicate. Numbers, in other words, are a powerful rhetorical strategy, one that is especially useful in fields with weak professional expertise. Where professional trust is low, our trust in numbers, Porter argues, tends to flourish.
  5. The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public by Sarah Iago—this selection might seem further afield than the other recommendations but it is definitely worth your time. While most books about measurement and categories tend to focus on the construction of the phenomenon itself, Iago shifts the focus and asks how Americans responded to and interacted with the idea of the “average American"—a concept made possible only through the mass aggregation of data. Examining the public response to the famous Middletown study, early Gallup Polling, and Kinsey’s reports on human sexuality, Iago shows how these research projects, and the concepts they produced, reshaped the imagination and identities of Americans around the country by providing a foil for judging normalcy or conventional wisdom. Though “big data” has replaced the quaint surveys of the Middletown and Gallup polling, we would all be wise to remember how social science constructs not only “make up people"—to use Ian Hacking’s phrase—but those “people” interact and change real people in important ways.

Those are my suggestions for interesting and thought-provoking reading on the history of testing and measurement. Hope you enjoy these books as much as I do.

The opinions expressed in K-12 Schools: Beyond the Rhetoric are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.