Education: Cure for Chaos

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In classrooms across the U.S. one day in 1901, close to 1,000 high-school seniors sat down to write in their bluebooks the answers to such questions as: "What are the main lines of Macaulay's comparison of Milton with Dante? . . . Define archon, ephor, demagogue, dicastery, tyrant . . ." These were the first questions, and the boys & girls were the first guinea pigs of a new testing institution: the College Entrance Examination Board.

Since then, U.S. students have become a good deal more familiar with "college boards." In the half century some 2,000,000 would-be collegians have suffered their way through the board's tests. By last week, when the College Entrance Examination Board celebrated its 50th anniversary and published its official history (The College Board: Its First Fifty^ Years, by Claude M. Fuess, Columbia University Press; $2.75), it had achieved an influence in U.S. education far greater than most Americans outside the teaching profession realized.

Cicero & Mishmash. The board began as an idea in the mind of the late Nicholas Murray Butler, then a mere dean of the faculty of philosophy at Columbia University. In those days, every college and university seemed to be setting up different requirements for admission. Even when they did agree on the broad subjects they wanted, they disagreed on how much. History at Columbia meant chiefly American history; at Yale it meant big doses of English history as well. Science for Harvard meant physics, at Yale it included botany, at Cornell, physiology. As for Latin, said Nicholas Murray Butler, "If Cicero were prescribed, it meant in one place four orations and another six, and not always the same four or the same six."

In such a mishmash, secondary schoolmen hardly knew what to get their students ready for. "Out of over 40 boys preparing for college next year," complained the headmaster of Andover, "we have more than 20 Senior classes."

"I'll Be Damned." And so, one day in 1899, at a meeting of educators, Butler proposed his cure for the chaos: set up a central examination board for all the colleges. Harvard's stately President Charles W. ("Five-Foot Shelf") Eliot promptly seconded the suggestion, and the board was born.

Not all educators liked the idea. "I'll be damned," cried one headmaster, "if any board down in New York City, with a college professor at its head, is going to tell me and my faculty what or how to teach!" But before long, the skeptics grew silent. Educators began to realize that the board was doing more than providing a standard set of examinations to be given on the same day, at the same clock hour, all over the U.S. It was providing the colleges with the first fair and sure method they had ever had for selecting their future students. It also put the whole field of secondary education on its mettle by providing a set of standards for all schools to follow.

Anyone Anywhere. Today, the board has as members 125 colleges and universities as well as 21 school associations, all operating through an executive committee of 14 educators. That committee meets in Manhattan, decides policy, and appoints the "examiners" to make up its tests. Five times a year the tests go out to some 500 testing centers. Any student anywhere, with or without a high-school diploma, can apply to take them.

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