Back to Student Testing

History and Background: Student Testing

See a historical timeline, from 1965 and onward, of federal laws and programs that shaped how students are tested and how often they’re assessed in America.

Photo credit: Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Back to Student Testing

1965: Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)

ESEA created what was considered a landmark commitment to equal access for all students to quality education, though it did not require testing. It was a cornerstone of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty and laid the groundwork for later testing and accountability measures. It created the federal Title I program that distributes funding to schools with high percentages of low-income students. It was intended for reauthorization every five years; however, there was a long gap in reauthorization between the enactment of the No Child Left Behind legislation in 2001 and the approval of the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015.

1969: National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)

NAEP, also known as The Nation’s Report Card, is a congressionally mandated program that was administered for the first time in 1969 to measure student achievement nationally. A sample of students in grades four and eight in every state are assessed in math and reading every two years, and exams in other subjects are administered periodically across the country.  

In 1990, separate representative samples were chosen from each state that agreed to participate in NAEP, providing state-level data. In addition, a set of school districts – called the Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) – volunteer to participate in The Nation’s Report Card, so they can see how they compare to other districts and to states. 

TUDA began in 2002 and is administered by the National Center for Education Statistics.  “Selection criteria are based on district size, percentages of African American or Hispanic students, and percentages of students eligible for the free and reduced-price lunch program,” according to NAEP

1994: Improving America’s Schools Act

This marked a reauthorization of the ESEA under President Bill Clinton; it required statewide testing at certain grade levels. The act created billions in additional funding for K-12 education, but to qualify for the grants, states and districts had to create school improvement plans and performance standards for at least math and reading. Assessments of those standards had to be given sometime between grades three and five, again between grades six and nine, and a third time for grades 10-12 to determine whether the plans were successful.

2000: Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 

PISA is an international assessment of reading, math and science among 15-year-olds, including those in the United States. It is administered every three years and is coordinated by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, an intergovernmental organization with 38 member countries. The results provide a global snapshot of how students are performing in education systems worldwide. More than 70 countries participate. Its goal is to measure students’ knowledge as they are nearing the end of their compulsory schooling. 

2001: No Child Left Behind (NCLB)

NCLB was the seventh reauthorization of the ESEA under President George W. Bush; it required accountability from all districts in the form of annual standardized tests and the publication of yearly report cards that included academic and demographic data. It came with a goal of closing learning gaps among certain student groups: children of color, English-language learners, those from low-income families and students in special education. 

Additionally, it also prioritized having all children proficient – as defined by individual states – in math and reading by 2014. These goals that weren’t achieved. The act was created due to concerns the U.S. was lagging behind its international competitors. Additionally, some states did not break down test score data by demographics and thus were not addressing the academic performance of marginalized groups. 

Under NCLB, states had to set targets for schools and districts to make Adequate Yearly Progress, known as AYP, and test scores were the sole accountability measure. NCLB was considered punitive in nature because schools that didn’t meet standards could be closed or designated failing schools; federal officials at the time disputed the intent as punitive. They contended that it exposed the need for better educating underperforming students. 

If districts didn’t meet academic targets over time, the law gave states the power to take over districts or fire and replace their staff. Teachers unions strongly opposed NCLB because of its sole focus on testing, and it was eventually criticized for creating an atmosphere of “teaching to the test” and overtesting.  

Despite the criticism, the act received credit for improved NAEP math scores in grades four and eight among Black and Hispanic students. It expired in 2007 and failed multiple attempts for reauthorization. Instead, states could receive waivers from the U.S. Department of Education after submitting school improvement plans. 

2007 to 2014: Race to the Top and NCLB Waivers 

Though NCLB expired in 2007, it remained in effect as years went by without reauthorization by Congress.  

There were two efforts aimed at addressing education improvements in the absence of the federal law: 

  • 2009: President Barack Obama’s administration initiated Race to the Top to incentivize states, and later districts, to compete for federal grants for their efforts to create plans to personalize education for all students and devise educator evaluation processes that would improve student outcomes. Funding for the grants came from $4.35 billion set aside in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. By 2013, an analysis found Race to the Top to be a failure. It was also heavily criticized by many, including politicians and educators.
  • 2012: The Obama administration first offered NCLB Act waivers to provide states flexibility from the “restrictive requirements” of NCLB. When granted, the waivers allowed states flexibility to set their own goals for closing achievement gaps and improving proficiency among all students. In their waiver applications, states had to set clear goals for preparing students to be college or career ready and to include the creation of statewide tests to measure progress and to set guidelines for teacher and principal effectiveness using factors in addition to test scores.  In total, 43 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico were granted waivers by the time the ESSA was approved in 2015.The waivers allowed the U.S. Department of Education to maintain some control while providing states more flexibility.   

2015: Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)

Congress passed the ESSA in December 2015 under President Obama. This eighth reauthorization of the ESEA did away with the edicts of NCLB, which was seen as a top-down law, with the states answering to the federal government. ESSA transferred power back to the states, allowing them to approve their own state accountability systems and teacher evaluations. Test scores and other academic factors continued to be the focus. 

ESSA still requires students in grades three to eight to be tested each year in reading and math and once in high school. In addition, students must be tested in science once in elementary school, middle school and high school.

It also continues the requirement that test scores be reported publicly and disaggregated in a way that shows the academic performance of student groups by race, socioeconomic status, disability and English-language learner status. It requires states to keep a focus on the most underserved students and to report the lowest-performing 5% of schools.