Everyone remembers taking standardized tests. You would start out with a line of number two pencils on your desk. What if those pencils never existed? How could  you possibly take a standardized test, pens maybe? Well pens as we know them don’t exist either. There was a time when students didn’t have pens and pencils. 

Pens and pencils were not mass produced until the late 1800s, before that students used either a quill pen or a slate and chalk (Miyamoto 2008). Neither of these were conducive to taking written tests, so oral tests were significantly more popular. Oral tests were “not impartial or objective in measuring achievement, but teachers could judge ability, based on their observation of pupils in their daily work” (Miyamoto 2008).  Students were judged on what they actually learned rather than arbitrary written exams. While oral exams were typically based on rote memorization, they allowed individual teachers to judge student achievement. 

After pencils and metal pens began being mass produced, written tests became the norm. Tests became more objective. Students were expected to meet certain criteria to move on to the next grade level, and now tests could be kept on record as proof of student achievement (Miyamoto 2008). This was essentially the birth of the modern day standards and accountability movement. 

While this is an incredibly simplistic view, and certainly not the only thing that led to America’s fascination with standards and accountability, it is an interesting way to look at it. If pens and pencils as we know them today never existed what would our educational system be like? Perhaps students would still be given oral tests to check their knowledge, and with no record of the tests achievement would be decided by the teacher that worked with the students for the whole year. Students might be accepted to college based on recommendations rather than SAT scores. It is even possible that instead of test prep, students would be focusing on content. 

I’m not saying that life without pencils would be a utopia, far from it. However, I do think its a good idea to put the pencils down once and a while and focus on more on meaningful learning and less on achievement. 


Miyamoto, Kenichiro. “The Origins of the Standards Movement in the United States: Adoption of the Written Test and its Influence on Class Work.” Educational Studies in Japan: International Yearbook 3.December (2008): 27-40.