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Testing to take students' knowledge temperature — in 1936

I recently wrote about a Flatbush mom who likes the fact that her son’s charter school frequently tests him so they can find out how to target his instruction. She said her son’s old school didn’t do this.

It might not have, but testing for the purpose of tailoring instruction to students’ needs is not a new innovation. In 1936, the New York Times ran an excited report about a conference where experts said that testing had been refined to the point where educators would be able to “determine accurately the studies that will fit the student’s particular needs and capacities.”

In some ways, the tests described at that 1936 conference, which took place at Columbia, are very different from those under debate right now: The wayback tests were meant to decide whether students should go on to college or to a trade. The point of the tests being debated in the comments section on GothamSchools and elsewhere is not to sort, but to avoid sorting by ensuring that all students can meet the same standards.

One similarity stands out, though: The Columbia experts said their post-war tests were so sophisticated that they “outstripped the ability of teachers to use them.” That’s a complaint I’ve heard from 21st century teachers, who say they spend so much time generating data about their students that they have too little time to determine how best to use the new information.

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