"More Than Measurable Human Products": Catholic Educators' Responses to the Educational Measurement Movement in the First Half of the 20th Century

By Ryan, Ann Marie | Catholic Education, September 2009 | Go to article overview

"More Than Measurable Human Products": Catholic Educators' Responses to the Educational Measurement Movement in the First Half of the 20th Century


Ryan, Ann Marie, Catholic Education


Every major innovation in educational methods and procedures has encountered open, hostile opposition. For the past two decades, perhaps no other one of the modern trends in school practice has stirred more heated and prolonged hostility than has measurement in education, a movement often designated by the phrase, tests and testing. (Hunsicker, 1938, p. 166)

Although some 70 years later, this statement could very well describe current debates over the use of tests and testing in schools. The question of whether a single test can assess a student's academic achievement or predict academic success runs counter to sound pedagogical practices, yet such tests are often used or misused to do just that. This is not a new debate. It began in the early 20th century during a seemingly unlikely time, an era associated with the progressive movement and a paradigm shift in teaching and learning inspired by the writings of John Dewey. Characterized as pedagogical progressives by historians, educators who admired Dewey's work promoted child-centered learning (Tyack, 1974). However, a parallel movement, focused on testing, developed at this same time by those who advocated educational measurement. These educators, described as administrative progressives, were equally interested in the needs of the individual child, but largely in order to establish a more orderly and efficient society (Tyack, 1974). This strain of progressivism promoted the administration of standardized achievement tests and IQ tests to elementary and secondary school students as sorting mechanisms for placing students in the "proper" academic track and guiding them toward work that "best" suited them.

The development of these approaches to education affected more than just public school educators and their students. Catholic educators in the United States weighed in on the debate over progressive education and its related educational reforms in the first half of the 20th century. During this same era, Catholic school enrollments steadily increased, reaching nearly 3.1 million by 1950, just fewer than 12% of the total school population (Snyder, 1993). This growth supported the Catholic hierarchy's goal of having every Catholic child in a Catholic school (Veverka, 1988), but it also made Catholic schools a more significant member of the American educational community and more subject to state oversight. Public supervision of Catholic schools accelerated with efforts to organize the nation's public schools in the early 20th century and the United States Supreme Court's decisions in Meyer v. Nebraska in 1923 and Pierce v. Society of Sisters in 1925. The latter two decisions protected private education, but allowed for state oversight. The resulting relationships with public educational agencies generated debates among Catholic educators over the value of progressive education and the public school reforms it inspired.

Catholic educators did not characterize themselves as progressive educators in the early 20th century, but some forcefully argued for incorporating progressive reforms in Catholic schools with both Catholic and progressive rationales. Examinations of Catholic responses to progressive education have focused primarily on the child-centered pedagogical theories promoted by prominent figures like Dewey and William Heard Kilpatrick (Walch, 1996/2003; Woods, 2004). Less attention has been given to Catholic responses to administrative progressivism, including standardization and accreditation, educational measurement, and vocational education and guidance, among others. Some historians have explored Catholic responses to accreditation (Gleason, 1995; O'Dowd, 1935; Ryan, 2006; Veverka, 1988), but given the impact of administrative progressive reforms, these topics warrant more in-depth examinations (Justice, 2005).

This study focuses on the responses of Catholic educators in the first half of the 20th century to one particular progressive reform, the educational measurement movement. …

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