The origins of measuring academic performance in the United States date back to the 1830s. Education advocates Horace Mann and Samuel Gridley Howe used a standardized test to evaluate student progress in Boston. Kansas school administrator Frederick J. Kelly advanced the idea of standardized testing with the Kansas Silent Reading Test in 1914. This multiple-choice test was used to decrease grading time and standardize student evaluations. IBM employee Reynold B. Johnson developed a grading machine in 1934 that could grade test sheets by picking up the electrical current created by pencil marks. Henry Chauncey developed the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) in 1934 to evaluate scholarship candidates at Harvard University and University of Iowa Professor E.F. Lindquist created the first version of the American College Test (ACT) in 1959.
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 encouraged adoption of standardized testing by all states. This legislation required states to measure student proficiency and develop accountability measures for public schools. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 continued the ESEA's focus on accountability by requiring states to ensure minimum proficiency levels in order to receive federal funds.
Method of measurement
Student performance is measured using grade point average (GPA), high school graduation rate, annual standardized tests and college entrance exams. A student's GPA is typically measured on a scale of zero to four with higher GPAs representing higher grades in the classroom. Graduation rates are collected by state and federal education officials as a baseline measurement of secondary education performance. Each state conducts annual tests at the elementary, middle and high school levels to determine student proficiency in subjects like English and mathematics. These tests are also used to comply with federal education standards. School districts also track student performance on the ACT and SAT to determine readiness for higher education.
The measurement of academic performance reveals achievement gaps in public schools based on race, gender and economic circumstances. The National Center for Education Statistics found that black and Hispanic students fell behind white students by the equivalent of two grade levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessment between 2009 and 2011. A study by MIT economists David Autor and Melanie Wasserman found that female high school students born in 1975 had a 91 percent graduation rate, while male high school students born in the same year had an 88 percent graduation rate. The U.S. Department of Education issued a report in 2011 that found 68 percent of high school seniors in high-poverty schools graduated in 2008 compared to 91 percent of seniors in low-poverty schools.
Differences in state testing
Each state develops a unique K-12 testing process intended to determine student proficiency prior to graduation. State control over standardized testing has led to divergence in academic rigor and proficiency requirements in recent years. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) found that about 20 percent of states changed annual assessment standards between 2007 and 2009. The NCES determined that 21 of 34 instances where standards were changed led to more rigorous evaluations than previous years. These changes increase the difficulty of assessing changes in academic performance from previous years and comparing state proficiency levels.
- ProCon.org, "Standardized Tests," accessed February 27, 2014
- PBS, "Americans Instrumental in Establishing Standardized Tests," accessed February 27, 2014
- ACT, "Our Story," accessed February 26, 2014
- Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, "Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)," accessed February 27, 2014
- National Assessment of Educational Progress, "Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto the NAEP Scales," accessed February 27, 2014
- ACT, "2012 ACT National and State Scores," accessed February 27, 2014
- Education Week, "Achievement Gap," July 7, 2011
- MIT, "Wayward Sons: The Emerging Gender Gap in Labor Markets and Education," accessed February 27, 2014