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Public and Catholic School Responses to IQ Testing in the Early 20th Century

by Ann Marie Ryan & Alan Stoskopf - 2008

Background: Between 1910 and 1930, IQ tests were introduced to and institutionalized in American schools. IQ testing represents an important component of the first wave of test-driven educational reform in American history, but surprisingly, there is relatively little research focusing on public educators’ perception of these tests at the time, and even less so for Catholic educators.

Focus of Study and Research Design: In this article, we compare the public and Catholic school discourse that accompanied the introduction of IQ testing during these early and critical years. This historical study analyzes the discourse among educational researchers, administrators, and teachers in these two parallel educational settings through an examination of conference proceedings from the National Education Association and the Catholic Educational Association.

These documents reveal the evolving attitudes toward the role of IQ testing in teaching and learning during the 1910s and 1920s. Our analysis demonstrates significant differences between these two groups in their responses to test-driven reform. We argue that these differences can be attributed to the contrasting ideological stances, institutional practices, and historical experiences of public and Catholic school educators.

Conclusions: We found a greater degree of questioning the purposes of IQ testing among Catholic educators due to a culture of skepticism toward modern notions. This allowed Catholic school educators to debate the validity and value of IQ testing much earlier and for a longer period than their public school counterparts. Critical reexaminations of IQ testing in public schools occurred well after the tests became a standard mechanism for placing students into learning tracks, making it considerably more difficult to advocate for undoing a practice that seemed to be addressing students’ needs. Whether more educational opportunities were really opening up for students because of IQ testing was not seriously questioned by most public school administrators during this era.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 4, 2008, p. 894-922
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14623, Date Accessed: 9/23/2021 10:06:26 PM

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About the Author
  • Ann Ryan
    Loyola University Chicago
    E-mail Author
    ANN MARIE RYAN is an assistant professor of education at Loyola University Chicago. Her research interests include the history of Catholic schooling in the United States in the 20th century. Her recent publications include, “Negotiating Assimilation: Chicago Catholic High Schools’ Pursuit of Accreditation in the Early-Twentieth Century” in History of Education Quarterly and “‘The Straight Road’: Promoting Catholic Higher Education in Early-Twentieth-Century Chicago” in American Educational History Journal.
  • Alan Stoskopf
    Institute in Education at Northeastern University
    ALAN STOSKOPF is the Academic Specialist for Social Sciences and Humanities in the Institute in Education at Northeastern University. His most recent research is on how the ethical and emotional dimensions of adolescent students' thinking influence their intellectual understanding of history.
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