Origins of Assessment – Part 1: Establishing the Competitive Ideal


This series of posts explores the history of educational assessment in North America, with an emphasis on Canada, from the years 1800 to 1950. For the purposes of this analysis, this timespan has been divided into three major intervals: (1) 1800-1845, representing the era of “loud” schooling and oral exhibitions, (2) 1845-1905, representing the advent and proliferation of written tests in schools, and (3) 1905-1950, representing the rise of norms-referenced intelligence testing and standardized achievement tests. For each of these three time periods, the social, political, and economic context of schooling is introduced, referencing the factors that were salient in shaping classroom assessment practices. This is followed by a description of different assessment methods and methodologies, including their strengths, limitations, and implications for schooling moving forward. This series of posts concludes with a consideration of how assessment practices should be revisited as our increasingly globalized economy transitions from an industrial age into an age of networked intelligence.

Overview of Assessment

According to the United States Congress Office of Technology (1992), educational assessment serves three main functions. First and foremost it is used by students and teachers as a feedback mechanism to facilitate classroom learning. Second, it is used by external evaluators, administrators, and policy-makers to monitor system-wide educational outcomes. Third, assessments may be used to inform decisions concerning the selection, placement, sorting, and credentialing of individual students (US Congress, 1992). Assessments may be formative or summative in nature, where summative assessments are more formally referred to as “evaluations.”

Assessments reflect the ideas that society has about the competencies students should develop (Glaser et al., 2001). Likewise, policy-makers may respond to changing societal needs/values by redefining what (and how) students should learn (Glaser et al., 2001). Changes to assessment practices and policies typically occur when there is growing public concern over the ability or effectiveness of schools to meet social needs (US Congress, 1992). According to Glaser et al. (2001), “current assessment practices are the cumulative product of theories of learning and models of measurement that were developed to fulfill the social and educational needs of a different time” (p. 25).

Part 1: Establishing the Competitive Ideal
The Context of Schooling: 1800-1845

The first half of the nineteenth century was a time of broad social and economic change in North America. As land in the western frontier was conquered, rates of urbanization and industrialization increased, which led to a higher concentration of people living in cities. American Loyalists moved to Canada because the land was cheap, and brought with them their ideas about democracy and education. Family structures changed as places of work became physically separated from places of living, leading to the emergence of the ‘nuclear family’ and concerns over the custodial care of children. Distinct social class structures became apparent, accompanied by the notion that positions of power would be reserved for the educated élite – namely, aristocratic, Protestant males of eastern European descent (Lemann, 2000).

Additionally, technological innovations made it necessary for individuals to learn how to read and write. While Johannes Guttenberg invented the first printing press with movable type in 1439, it wasn’t until 1752 that his invention made its way to Canada, prompting the publication of Canada’s first newspaper, the Halifax Gazette (Forbes, 2012). The affordances of written text made it possible to sequence, classify, explain, and closely examine abstract ideas – activities that were not previously possible in an oral culture where spoken ideas were transient and ephemeral. As Walter Ong (2002) notes in Orality and Literacy, prior to the invention of written texts, human beings did not ‘study.’ Therefore, as the availability of printed materials increased during the early nineteenth century, so too did the number of schools.

“Loud” Schooling

The mass production of printed materials in Canada was quite new and the vast majority of texts came from the United States. In accordance with McLuhan’s (2006) assertion that we tend to approach new media through the lens of past technologies, the activities that took place in schoolrooms during the first half of the nineteenth century were still rooted in oral traditions, emphasizing tasks such as recitation and emulation. Students spent most of their school days memorizing and repeating facts from whatever textbooks were available on hand (Reese, 2013). As Finkelstein (1975) notes, “In the so-called loud schools of the 1830s and 1840s, teachers literally forced students to learn their lessons in isolation by demanding that each one ‘con’ his lesson aloud” (p. 364). Part of the technique of learning entailed using mnemonic devices, repetition, and rhythmic patterns to facilitate the recall of long passages of text (Ong, 2002).

one-room-schoolhouseAt this time schoolrooms were ungraded and contained students of mixed abilities ranging in age from approximately seven to twelve years (Axelrod, 1997). Decisions surrounding what to teach were entirely at the discretion of the teacher, and the quality of instruction varied widely from school to school. In rural settings, one-room schoolhouses were commonly run by itinerant teachers, some of whom were of questionable character and barely literate (Axelrod, 1997). In other settings, particularly urban areas, students were taught in large halls where they were “classed” based on ability rather than age (Reese, 2013). Here, the male school Masters, who were well paid and highly respected, taught only the first-class students, while the poorly-paid female assistants and student “monitors” were responsible for teaching the rest. Each school had its own unwritten rules based on the “whims of the Masters” (Reese, 2013, p. 46) and “what went on in the schools remained the concern only of the subscribers to that school” (Gidney & Lawr, 1980, p. 441). In other words, until the mid-nineteenth century, schooling was an entirely local enterprise.

Oral Exhibitions

Prior to the Common School Act of 1846, there were no provisions in place to formally inspect schools or instructors (Wilson, 1970). Instead, schools and students were assessed informally based on subjective impressions. At this time, “exhibitions” for the grammar schools were highly popular. Here, the community gathered at the end of the school year to watch students undergo oral examinations as well as perform debates and recitations – most commonly in the subjects of spelling, writing, and arithmetic (Reese, 2013). At these exhibitions, “public performance was everything” since the quality of the exhibitions would lead citizens to make judgments about the competency of the instructors and the overall effectiveness of the schools (Reese, 2013, p. 14). In an effort to make a positive impression on audiences, teachers would hand-select their best pupils to perform, while low-achieving students would not be invited to participate (Reese, 2013). Selected students were provided with their questions several weeks in advance and were rigorously coached by their teachers such that the responses they delivered on the night of the exhibition had been well rehearsed ahead of time. To further impress attendees, teachers often forced students to memorize and recite passages that were well above their level of understanding in difficulty. Consequently, critics likened students to “parrots,” claiming that instead of revealing their actual knowledge, they were merely being taught the “art of sprouting” (Reese, 2013, p. 23).

In addition to enforcing the practice of rote memorization, there were a number of other unintended consequences that these exhibitions had on assessment and schooling moving forward. First, the incentive for students to perform well was extrinsic rather than intrinsic. Students were rewarded for a strong performance with prizes and by having their names printed in the local newspaper, which was accompanied by praise and recognition by the community. Some have suggested that this practice conditioned students into believing that academic achievement was associated with external rewards, thereby eliminating any intrinsic desires to learn or to appreciate knowledge for its own sake (Reese, 2013). An additional implication was that students were taught that learning was best achieved through competition with peers. Inspired by contemporary economic theorists such as Adam Smith, who touted the benefits of marketplace competition, educators brought the “competitive ideal” into schoolrooms (Wilson, 1977). While proponents believed that the virtues of competition (e.g. industry, frugality, and achievement) should be rewarded and honoured, critics felt that competition in schools undermined Christian values and led to poor moral character. For example, at public exhibitions students were awarded prizes at the expense of others, leading many to take pleasure in watching their fellow classmates fail (a phenomenon later termed “Shadenfreude”).

In spite of these criticisms, teachers and community members felt confident in their ability to judge the quality of a school and the competence of its pupils based on these public exhibitions. No one questioned the notion that the brightest pupils (i.e. the best “parrots”) should stand as a proxy for the whole school (Reese, 2013). Journalists reporting on exhibition outcomes frequently “puffed” their schools (i.e. gave them overly positive appraisals) as a demonstration of local pride. Such articles included unsubstantiated claims about the effectiveness of schools – for example, that they “have been and still are proceeding in a continual course of improvement” or that schools “are in a healthy and prosperous condition” (Reese, 2013, p. 39). Situated within the social, economic, and political climate described in Part 2, these stated-as-fact opinions fuelled reformers’ advocacy for centralized – rather than localized – control over schooling.

Continue to Part 2 →


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