Add Alt Text Here

Memories of SSU

Bjorn Karlsen

Faculty and Test Author, 1966-1985

Standardized Tests Developed at SSU   

            During the stormy years of the civil rights movement and the war on poverty in the 1960s and 1970s, while a professor at SSU, I was extensively involved in the development of the school achievement tests, including the Stanford Achievement Test. It was the best-selling test in the United States at the time. The vast majority of the faculty at that time could be described as ultra-liberal and eager to fight for civil rights, equality and everything that went along with that statement. There were strong behaviorist views, which assumed that the human potential was malleable, shaped mainly by the environment. As one of my colleagues in the Department of Education expressed it, “All children are gifted.” A less-noted trend of those days was that children’s schoolbooks were going through extensive revisions to eliminate the middle class and sexist biases. The Dick and Jane readers, from which the vast majority of Americans had learned to read, were chastised and maligned as being sexist and promoting a lifestyle that was unrealistic and out of step with the time.

            One of the concepts that hit particularly hard was “intelligence.” The opinion was often expressed that intelligence tests were grossly biased in favor of the children of affluent families. The fact that disproportionately large numbers of minority students scored below the “white average” on IQ tests or were overrepresented in special classes for the slow learners was taken as evidence that the tests were biased.

In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court basically outlawed the use of standardized ability tests in hiring employees. The following year, the National Educational Association asked for a moratorium on all standardized intelligence testing. The final blow was when the U.S. District Court of San Francisco judged that use of IQ tests for special class placement was unconstitutional. (The Larry P. case-1978) Since then, IQ tests have very rarely been administered in any California public schools.

Much of the attitude about IQ tests carried over to virtually all standardized tests, including school achievement tests. This was a bit surprising to me, since they were specifically designed to determine the educational strengths and individual needs for each student to help teachers plan better and create more tailored individualized instruction. However, the tendency was to paint all tests with the same brush, tests were tests and they were all biased.              

            Meanwhile, I was establishing very good working relationships with the public schools. I helped out whenever I was asked, and was never turned down in my requests for help. I had a personal habit of trying out every new idea I had for a type of test or original test format myself with a group of students. This was all done in local schools. I was also often called upon for assistance on issues relating to testing. I did a semester-long seminar for a large group of school superintendents. At one time I appeared in Federal court as an expert witness for a California school district. The Legislative Analyst for the California Legislature called me often for factual information about educational issues that required educational statistical information. I believe that much of that activity enhanced the image of SSU in the state.

            Coming back to the era during which these events took place, there were still strong opinions about test bias. In retrospect, there were some strong biases in the old tests relating to sex stereotyping, types of family situations depicted, cultural loading of content, types of illustrations used in test items, regional and dialectal issues, sensitivity to minorities and other significant considerations. We foresaw such a variety of issues that as test authors we brought together a “bias panel” of about a dozen people to help us deal with issues to which we may not have been sensitive. These issues were dealt with not only in tests, but in all educational materials as well, where extensive efforts were made to make textbooks and tests politically correct.

            The fact that I could impact education at the national level was a strong motivator. However, the aspect that fascinated me the most was the data. We collected data on every conceivable issue in education, finding answers to questions people had yet to ask us. Our detailed item data bank is an amazing source of how and what children learn. Some of it is actually so astounding that many educators find it hard to believe our data, even if they were collected right in their own school district. I have also had the opportunity to spend time with school administrators and school boards, explaining and interpreting their test results. However, as test results have become more political, the teaching profession has become disenchanted with their use, claiming that they lead to unfair judgments and comparisons with limited impact on education.

            The biggest shift I have seen in the 40-some years I have worked on test development has been the increase in interest by parents and politicians in the large-scale test results. This interest has been, to some extent, an outgrowth of international comparisons where the U.S. has come off very unfavorably, but also from the fact that too many children appear to be short-changed in our educational system. Our test data illustrates this quite vividly. But that’s another long story…