One of the (many) things I knew I’d miss intensely when my mother died 14 years ago was her wonderful letters-informative, witty, and in an elegant handwriting. Her all-time, most hilarious letter was when a disproportionate number of members of the local little theatre crowd, a randy bunch, came down with what my mother called “s—–.”

Even though she was an epistolary genius, my mother was not, by any standard imaginable, an intellectual-she had dropped out of an Episcopal girls’ boarding school in the eleventh grade with the announcement that she could not take hard subjects and date. “I had to make a choice,” she told my incredulous grandparents.

Over the years, as an editor and writer, I’ve encountered Harvard graduates who couldn’t wield the pen with the skill that marked my mother’s letters. What had happened? What had changed? I think it’s the education system-in my mother’s abbreviated education, she took the subjects that would today be for elite students. Yes, her French text books are elaborately decorated with the names of long-dead suitors, but they were French texts all the same.

A piece by Diane Ravitch (“The Fall of the Standard Bearers”) backs up my theory on why Julia Morgan Hays wrote better letters than many Harvard grads. The article is about the establishment of the SAT tests. Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University, and Charles Eliot, president of Harvard University, advocated such a standardized test to ensure that colleges could judge the quality of applicants. The result of their efforts was College Entrance Examination Board, established in 1900. Ravitz makes an interesting comment on the kind of education offered in high schools in those days:

“Even though roughly only one of every 20 17-year-olds in 1900 finished high school, and even fewer expected to go to college, everyone who attended high school in that era studied the curriculum that was later called the ‘college track.’ Whether they were the children of doctors or farmers or factory workers, they were expected to study mathematics, science, English literature, composition, history, and a foreign language, usually Latin….

“The examinations – in chemistry, English, French, German, Greek, history, Latin, mathematics, and physics – contained no multiple-choice questions. Students were expected to demonstrate their knowledge by writing extended essays or displaying their solutions to problems. In English, 10 classics were assigned in advance for students, including The Merchant of Venice, The Vicar of Wakefield, The Last of the Mohicans, Silas Marner, and ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ Students were told that they would be judged more for their powers of clear expression than for their minute knowledge of those works, but they were expected to have closely studied them and to be ready to answer questions in detail. Every two or three years, the standards and reading lists were revised, and high-school teachers knew well in advance which works would be covered.”

These tests set the educational standards for the country-thus my mother doodled the names of beaux in some of the great works of the Western canon of literature. But, as Ravitz reports, change was on the way:

“Alas, that situation would not last forever. Even as the College Board was reaching the height of professional and public esteem, experts in educational assessment were developing new kinds of tests. Beginning with examinations created for the Army during World War I, psychologists of education touted the virtues of group-administered intelligence testing. Psychologists like Carl C. Brigham, Lewis Terman, Edward L. Thorndike, and Robert Yerkes claimed that the new tests could quickly make accurate predictions about students’ innate ability.

“Traditional examinations, like those of the College Board, aimed to measure what students had learned as a result of study and instruction. By contrast, the new intelligence tests promised to save time and money by measuring not what students had learned but what they were capableof learning.

“Faced with claims that its examinations were obsolete, and not ‘scientific’ like the new tests, the College Board engaged a group of psychologists to design a ‘modern’ test. The committee, which included Brigham and Yerkes, produced the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which was administered for the first time in 1926.

“In 1930 Brigham joined the staff of the College Board, where he continued to conduct research on the SAT. One of the key figures in the development, marketing, and popularization of group intelligence tests, he maintained not only that they measured fixed, innate intelligence, but also that inherited intelligence varied by race and ethnicity.”

The outbreak of World War II ushered in more changes in testing-instead of essays, the multiple choice became the tool of choice. Many educators hoped that this was temporary and that, once the war ended and young men were not going to war, making it hard to administer the tests, the old form of testing would return.

But this was not to be:

“After the war, the primary function of the College Board shifted. It no longer saw itself as an agency to establish standards by overseeing the collaboration of schools and colleges, but as a testing agency. In 1948 it helped to create the Educational Testing Service, which took over the admissions-testing program. While the founders of the board had emphasized that its examinations would be based on clear curricular standards, now both the board and ETS insisted that their tests had no bearing on either standards or curriculum. In the 1940s and 1950s, the board insisted that it had deliberately abandoned its role as a standard-setting organization and had, instead, become an impartial assessor of student abilities.”

The abdication by the college testing agency left, according to Ravitch, a vacuum that government has tried to fill. For example, President Bush’s No Child Left Behind program includes mandatory testing. But it simply isn’t as good as the older method.

“The current regime of testing is aimed at raising the test scores of students who are performing poorly,” writes Ravitch. “It is an entirely skills-based approach, geared toward using the threat of federal sanctions to raise a low common denominator. It leaves out subjects like history, civics, literature, the arts, foreign languages – and advanced courses in every subject. As a result, many states have adopted a dumbed-down definition of proficiency.

“Under the old regime of the College Board, the nation’s schools had standards that were uniform, predictable, and elevating; they were written and revised by those who were in the nation’s classrooms. Today the states and the federal government have taken over the responsibility for setting the nation’s standards. So far the results are unimpressive. It is by no means clear that public officials, given political and bureaucratic constraints, can accomplish what the College Board once did – or that they even know what ought to be done.”

My mother ended her report on liasons among the little theatre crowd with an injunction: “Burn this letter!” Not for all the tea in China.