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Couper Lecture examines start of standardized testing

By : Erin Owens

William J. Reese gave the 17th annual Edgar W. Couper Lecture on April 24, discussing the beginnings of standardized testing in 1845, a practice still widely used today.

Reese is the Carl F. Kaestle WARF Professor of Educational Policy Studies and History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on the history of American education and the history of childhood and adolescence.

In his lecture, “The Summer of ’45 and the First Big Tests,” Reese talked about the history of testing, which started in Boston nearly 165 years ago. He focused on two men, Horace Mann and Samuel Gridley Howe, who were among the first advocates of standardized testing.

“From the beginning, testing was political and gained controversy,” Reese said.

Before 1845, the testing of students was generally oral and required only simple memorization, Reese said.  The written, standardized tests that Howe and Mann introduced required students to understand the material they learned, and applied the same standards for all students. But because of low test scores, the tests angered many parents and school masters.

“Tests applauded the best, and embarrassed the worst,” Reese said.

Overall, Reese said those first tests in 1845 were just a glimpse into the future, as competitive testing would never disappear.

“We are still testing children, still arguing what information should be tested and still wondering what to do with those left behind,” Reese said.

The Couper Lecture is given each year in honor of the late Edgar W. Couper, one of the men responsible for the founding in 1950 of what is now Binghamton University. After his death at the age of 88 in 1988, his family and friends honored him and his accomplishments by establishing the Edgar W. Couper Endowment Fund for Educational Excellence at Binghamton University.

Before the lecture, President Lois B. DeFleur and others spoke at a reception to honor the Couper Fellows. Jie Deng and Ji Zhou were welcomed as the new Couper Fellows for the 2009-2010 school year.

“There are very few families who have that breadth of interest and commitment to any University,” DeFleur said, “and we are so blessed to have the Couper family so invested in us.”

Couper’s granddaughter, Janet Watrous, also spoke at the reception, recalling her grandfather’s hard work and kindness. She said instead of remembering him as he looks in his scholarly clothes in the picture hanging in the Couper Administration Building, she pictures him wearing khaki pants and rolled-up sleeves, always working outside.

“We are at a time when we need to roll up our sleeves,” Watrous said. “I hope you keep that picture of him in mind. It is because of him that we are here.”

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Last Updated: 10/14/08