Book Review                                              Page 38


Testing Wars in the Public


A Forgotten History   


by William J. Reese, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2013, 278 pp. with index, $45 hardcover

Emotional, strong-willed debates about the proper role of testing to evaluate students, schools, teachers and leaders dominate today’s education and policy news just as it did in Boston nearly 170 years ago. The debate today contains many of the same arguments Horace Mann, Samuel Gridley Howe and others used in the mid-19th century.

In Testing Wars in the Public Schools: A Forgotten History, William J. Reese, professor of education policy and history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, documents the often overlooked context for the evolution of student testing policies and practices.

Reese’s well-documented examination of the school committee politics of the mid-1800s in Boston, as today, was a response to the general charge that American education was “slipping behind the times.” So Boston Mayor Josiah Quincy enlisted Mann, Howe and others to lead reform initiatives that challenged the role of the school masters who were then in charge of the school system.

Testing was used by these reform proponents to measure student performance based on the belief such measurements would provide evidence of effective teaching, or the lack thereof. Educators, religious leaders and others objected to the testing strategy, contending such standardized testing would narrow the curriculum, reduce teacher options and adversely impact child development.

Despite these objections, a new testing protocol was initiated in 1845 that ultimately resulted in the adoptions of structural changes that consolidated leadership into the role of the superintendent, created graded schools and moderated the use of corporal punishment.

Central arguments in these debates, just as now, were the debate about whether “teachers largely determined the quality of a school” and whether “antiquated instructional and disciplinary methods inevitably produced low academic achievement.” Reese concludes that “the nineteenth century acclimated many teachers, pupils, taxpayers and administrators to a world where schools were expected to produce measurable results.”

Testing Wars in the Public Schools will provide school leaders with a deeper understanding about how today’s testing debates evolved from the political context of American history. This understanding will test the assumptions many may have formed about some of the historic figures in American culture from the 1840s until today, but more importantly it will inform the reader about how volatile and difficult the work to combine best educational practices with evidence of learning remains today.

Reviewed by Brian L. Benzel, adjunct professor, Whitworth University, Spokane, Wash.


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