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Landing page B photos Can You Pass This 1912 Exam?
Ohio’s First
Standardized School Tests


Diane Ravitch, once a member of President George H.W. Bush’s administration and recent author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System, has suggested that standardized tests are “the monster that ate American education.” In light of their controversial nature, it’s important to understand the origin of such tests in Ohio.

They were the focus of “What Are Adverbs? The Boxwell Proficiency Exam” by David A. Simmons and Ann E. Thomas in the September 1993 issue of the Ohio Historical Society magazine Timeline.

Rural Schools the Target
Ohio’s first proficiency tests were directed at the uneven and sometimes indifferent quality of primary schools in the state’s rural districts. Not until 1921 was school attendance mandatory for six-to-18-year-olds in Ohio. But as early as 1890, some thought was given to making high school a part of every Ohioan’s education. Unfortunately, most rural districts had no high school building or program.

The Ohio General Assembly passed the Boxwell Law in 1892, partly to address this problem. It was the brainchild of Alexander Boxwell, a former Warren County teacher who was elected to the House of Representatives after becoming a lawyer. Creating a statewide system of graduation exams based on a system then in use in Warren County, it passed both houses of the legislature with virtually no opposition.

Rural students completing the eighth grade were tested in spelling and language, reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, physical geography, grammar, United States history and physiology. Tests were administered twice every spring by the same county examiners who certified teachers. Passing students could attend any high school in the county.

Initial Controversy
The law’s provision making it optional for the local school board to pay a passing student’s high school tuition proved controversial. So in 1902, Pike County’s Sen. Samuel Patterson led the fight to make the payment compulsory. His law also made state officials responsible for the test questions and for establishing minimum passing grades. Thereafter, the examinations became known as the Boxwell-Patterson tests.

Some questions were raised about the tests’ practicality and local objections were heard about state interference or that high-school administrators should be the ones overseeing the tests. But generally, the law helped focus statewide attention on education and, most importantly, raised the standards of what were, too often, loosely administered rural schools. Since the tests encouraged teachers “to put forth greater effort,” one normal school instructor also suggested using test results as part of teacher evaluation reviews.

Cities Abolish Promotion Exams
About the time the Boxwell law was implemented, the Cincinnati and Cleveland school systems, two of the largest in Ohio, announced their abandonment of promotion exams. Part of dissenting voices among educators who questioned the intrinsic value of examinations, it was felt that their use led to useless “cramming,” encouraged cheating and promoted uninspired, mechanical teaching. Instead, the city schools proposed using daily and monthly records of each student’s progress.

The decision further emphasized the wide discrepancies between city and rural schools in Ohio. Most, however, agreed with Oscar Corson, Ohio Commissioner of Education, that the Boxwell helped improve Ohio schools when they most needed it and that rural schools gained the most by them.

Boxwell-Patterson Becomes History
Progressive school reformers found an ally in the governor’s office with James Cox’s election in 1912. Under his guidance, sweeping reform legislation, known as the Rural School Code, became law in 1914. It established graded, consolidated schools under county supervision, with set curricula for each level, and required teachers to be college or normal school graduates. It effectively closed the era of Ohio’s first proficiency exams.


Can You Pass the Exam?
Click here to see the May 1912 Boxwell-Patterson Examination.

Enjoy This Story?
Get Timeline, the award-winning quarterly magazine of the Ohio Historical Society, for just $40 a year. Call 800.686.1543 or visit ohiohistorystore.com.

Photo of students at their desks in a one-room schoolhouse in Fayette County, c. 1909-1910. Detail of the morning portion of the May 18, 1912, Boxwell-Patterson Examination. Detail of a photo picturing a one-room schoolhouse in southeast Ohio or possibly in West Virginia, simply identified as 'Our School ’07.'
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