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William A. McCall (1891–1982)

Professor of educational psychology, William Anderson McCall was an expert in the construction of tests and measurements to evaluate student learning and achievement. Born in Wellsville, Tennessee, McCall received his early education in a one-room schoolhouse, near Red Ash, Kentucky. Reared in a family of limited means, he spent up to half of each calendar year, from the time he was nine years old through his teenage years, working as a coal digger in the mines in Red Ash and neighboring Jellico, Tennessee. Encouraged by local educators who recognized his intellectual abilities, McCall continued his education at Cumberland College in Kentucky, where he received an A.B. degree in 1911, and at Lincoln Memorial University, in Tennessee, where he taught psychology and earned a second undergraduate degree in 1913. In the same year he enrolled at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he earned a Ph.D. in 1916, under the reputed behavioral psychologist, Edward L. Thorndike.

McCall began his graduate studies at Teachers College at the height of the Progressive educational reform movement, which began in the 1890s and stretched into the early decades of the twentieth century. No other university-affiliated school of education rivaled Teachers College in terms of its influence in shaping the Progressive educational agenda, which among other objectives aimed to establish a scientific basis for the study and practice of education and to ensure greater order, accountability, and economy in school management. Over the course of his forty-year professorship at Teachers College, Thorndike generated in collaboration with his students–McCall counting prominently among them–a body of quantitative knowledge in the field of mental measurements that was a central, supporting element of these overlapping goals.

Standard measures of educational objectives and statistical analyses of learning and achievement favored by Thorndike and his students formed the basis, among other new administrative practices, for the homogenous grouping of students by intellectual ability and became cornerstones of the efficiently managed schools that educational reformers envisioned.

As McCall remembered, he first attracted the attention and respect of Thorndike, who he grew to revere, based on the proficiency he demonstrated, in his first year at Teachers College, at navigating a series of mazes with which Thorndike challenged a class of students. By any measure, McCall's professional career advanced quickly at Teachers College. In the same year he completed his doctoral studies, he was appointed an instructor in elementary education and published the results of experimental work he conducted with Thorndike, measuring the relationship between different conditions of air ventilation and mental functioning. In 1919 he was appointed an assistant professor of elementary education, and in 1927 he became professor of measurement, research, and statistics.

In the intervening years, McCall published two of his most noteworthy books, How to Measure in Education and How to Experiment in Education. Both volumes, which are in effect practical guides for educators to the field of mental measurements, address the need for precise means of quantifying student intelligence and for experimental projects to test the validity of educational theory and the effectiveness of classroom practice. Building on Thorndike's well-known maxim that "whatever exists at all, exists in some amount" (p. 16), McCall reasons in How to Measure that "there is never a quantity that does not measure some existing quality, and never an existing quality that is non-quantitative" (1923a, p. 4). In response to contemporary educational critics, who framed educational questions in philosophical and qualitative terms, or who otherwise questioned the true limits of quantification, McCall insists that "all the abilities and virtues for which education is consciously striving can be measured and be measured better than they ever have been. The measurement of initiative, judgment of relative values, leadership, appreciation of good literature and the like," he asserts, "is entirely possible"(1923b, p. 4).

In keeping with his view of educational reform, McCall wrote extensively over the course of his career about the technical aspects of constructing, implementing, scaling, and scoring tests to evaluate intellectual competency and achievement. In addition, he was the author or coauthor of numerous tests and courses of instruction in the fields of reading, arithmetic and spelling, including the Thorndike-McCall Reading Scale, the Multi-Mental Scale, the McCall Speller, Woody-McCall Mixed Fundamentals in Arithmetic Language, and McCall-Crabbs Standard Test Lessons in Reading.

McCall's expertise in mental measurements was not limited to the reform of American education. On leave from Teachers College, McCall spent the 1922–1923 academic year in China, where he served as director of psychological research for the Chinese National Association for the Advancement of Education. The enrollment of Chinese students at Teachers College, beginning in 1910, paved the way during a period of educational modernization in China for intellectual exchange between Teachers College faculty and leading Chinese educators. McCall traveled to China, following visits there by Paul Monroe, who was a professor of history and education, and the philosopher John Dewey, who taught courses in education at Teachers College. Eager to encourage the scientific study of education in China, McCall worked diligently, overseeing the construction of educational tests and measurements and their use in Chinese schools nationwide. He was firmly committed to realizing the same objectives in China that shaped his work to improve education in the United States. In a 1923 report, Scientific Measurement and Related Studies in Chinese Education, which outlines his work in China, McCall notes that "to test all things and hold fast that which is good is as prerequisite to progress in education as it has been to the correction of our practical philosophy, or the improvement of every form of life upon the earth" (1923b, p. 19).

Although McCall had hoped to spend an additional year in China to further the work he had begun, his request for another leave of absence was denied by Teachers College. He resumed his teaching duties there until 1927, when he contracted tuberculosis and was forced to abandon his professional responsibilities to convalesce. He returned to Teachers College sometime around 1930. He never fully recovered from his illness though and left active duty with the faculty in 1941. He moved with his wife, Gretchen Schweizer McCall, to the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina. McCall continued to be active professionally, revising and constructing new tests and courses of reading instruction, and consulting on various educational projects. In 1952 he published the results of a study, Measurement of Teacher Merit, that he conducted for the North Carolina State Education Commission, which measured the effectiveness of classroom teachers in relationship to pupil progress and growth. In 1975 he published I Thunk Me a Thaut, a compilation of the diary entries he wrote in Appalachian dialect, beginning when he was eight years old, about his boyhood. McCall eventually made his home in Coral Cables, Florida, where he died.


MCCALL, WILLIAM ANDERSON. 1922. How to Measure in Education. New York: Macmillan.

MCCALL, WILLIAM ANDERSON. 1923a. How to Experiment in Education. New York: Macmillan.

MCCALL, WILLIAM ANDERSON. 1923b. Scientific Measurement and Related Studies in Chinese Education. Peking: Chinese National Association for the Advancement of Education.

MCCALL, WILLIAM ANDERSON. 1934. "My Philosophy of Life and Education," parts 1–3. Teachers College Record 35:560–572; 36:303–316, 409–418; 37:50–59.

MCCALL, WILLIAM ANDERSON. 1952. Measurement of Teacher Merit. Raleigh, NC: State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

MCCALL, WILLIAM ANDERSON. 1975. I Thunk Me a Thaut. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.


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