Revisiting school history: past standardized exams, course offerings and student activism

Hugh Roberts

While state-mandated standardized tests like the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) are currently used to gauge student academic performance and construct a school’s profile, a different and controversial test was used then.

In 1968, incoming freshmen and transfer students were administered the Lorge Thorndike test, later renamed the Cognitive Abilities Test, which estimated students’ problem solving abilities through verbal, nonverbal and quantitative tasks. The California Achievement Test (CAT) measured reading and mathematics levels.

Intelligence Quotient (IQ) tests measuring students’ innate abilities, which were selectively administered to graduating classes, were then separated into two sections: students with an IQ of 115 or above, and the rest of the class. The school then analyzed the percentages of these “upper students” who completed an adequate number of courses in English, math, science, foreign language and social studies.

A teacher who saw the downside of using these tests was Dr. Hugh Roberts, one of the school’s original social studies teachers who was hired when the school opened in 1959.

“When I was teaching, counselors would use or misuse IQ tests as one of the measures to suggest future employment or college,” Roberts said. “They used them less and less over time.”

In the 1960s, enrollment in advanced classes was contingent on achieving a certain score on standardized tests. For example, some classes would administer the reading exam to determine whether a student would qualify for it.

According to Roberts, the school didn’t strictly uphold such policies of test-in classes. Admission into more selective courses was primarily based on past teacher recommendations, and students would be given a pretest about material later covered in the course.

“I don’t believe I ever refused a student who showed up for a class,” Roberts said. “After the pretest and the first set of assignments, if the student’s performance was so low that they would do badly later on, I would counsel them to see if they still wanted to try it. If they did, it was their choice.”

Demographics and student activism

Most classes in the 1960s and early 1970s weren’t equipped with textbooks. In cases such as the sociology course taught by Roberts, who taught at the school from its opening in 1959 to 1979 and served as the former head of the Social Studies Department, freedom in curriculum structure gave students more opportunities to interact with the community.

“After the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, the necessary information taught in classes became heavily structured with less creativity and very little involvement of the students,” Roberts said. “Before then, I always had students doing social experiments. I had them out in the community conducting projects and sharing their results with the class.”


Proposition 13, still controversial today, puts a cap on property taxes paid by homeowners and businesses. It was a devastating financial blow to all public K-12 schools, but advocates argued it was needed to allow elderly homeowners to stay in their homes and not be forced out by huge property tax bills that grew as prices increased. 

Two students from the Class of 1968, Jamie De’Angelo and Kim, were inspired by Roberts, who was then working with the American Sociological Association on a National Science Foundation grant and writing paperback books on topics such as poverty and racism in America.

1968 was a year rife with political upheaval and civic action, from the Vietnam War to the height of the Civil Rights movement. During this time, many schools on the East Coast held “incredibly active” Black student unions, Roberts said. He and other faculty members also took a day off from work to join an anti-Vietnam War protest in San Francisco. 

Interestingly, the school rarely had more than two African American students at a time. In 1968, approximately 97% of the school’s student population was Caucasian; of the 1,461 students enrolled, only six were “East Asian” — a far cry from the 60% of Asian American students who now attend the school.

“Students here felt they had no prejudice,” Roberts said. “They didn’t even know anyone who was Black.”


De’Angelo, another student from the Class of 1968, led a petition of students to change the dress code, which prohibited girls from wearing pants and skirts above knee-length. The petition proved successful in 1970.

Roberts and his sociology students also investigated discrimination within the community, a practice called redlining. For example, from the 1930s to the 1960s, developers used covenants and other means to to keep Blacks and other minorities from buying homes in some majority-white neighborhoods — in fact, one of Monroe’s neighbors threatened to bomb his house if his family sold it to a Black family. 

In response to this kind of gross discrimation, Roberts created a petition in support of a Black couple moving into Saratoga. An “overwhelming percentage” of Saratoga residents signed. 

Students in his 1968 sociology class researched the stereotypes about Black people and other minorities, and broke them down into survey questions to gauge student attitudes on a 1 to 6 scale. 

“The results tell you that the degree of strong prejudice in Saratoga has never been that high,” Roberts said. “It’s been talked about a lot, but it’s been mild relative to the total culture in the United States.”

The two-page survey, frayed, folded and ripped at the edges, still holds characteristics representative of documents at the time — monospace font on typewriters and ink that bled through. The records show how much has changed in the more than five decades since.

Photo courtesy of Hugh Roberts, excerpt from TIME magazine (Dec. 22, 1941)