Competency Testing

AuthorJeffrey Wilson

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Testing students for academic achievement or competency is not new. As early as the 1970s, some states were making adequate performance on "exit examinations" a prerequisite for high school graduation. This was done in an effort to enhance teacher quality as well as student achievement during an era when many questions were raised by parents, educators, and the public at large about the seeming lack of basic skills in high school graduates.

While varying and inconsistent approaches have been taken to measure student performance at the elementary school level, there is more unison in setting certain minimum criteria for graduation from high school. The vast majority of states require an overall accumulation of "Carnegie units" (reflecting the number of classroom hours spent learning) in addition to passing grades in certain core subjects. But by 2002, nearly half of all states required (or were planning to require within the next two years) "exit exams" in addition to accumulated credit hours in order for students to receive diplomas evidencing high school graduation.

"Exit Examinations" for High School Graduates

Following years of complaints from both employers and academic institutions of higher learning (that many high school graduates lacked basic educational skills in reading, writing, and math), both legislators and educators agreed to work toward raising educational standards nationwide. This has resulted in renewed focus on learning rather than remediation and more accountability for teachers and school systems.

Educational standards (and correlative exams) for gauging performance have been criticized in the past for being local or parochial in substance, making grades and class standing a "relative" achievement based only upon how well others in the same school system or state performed. The Education Reform Act helped standardize student performance on a national level, but new questions were raised as to whether teachers were actually enhancing learning skills or merely "teaching to the test," (i.e., merely teaching those things they knew students would be

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tested on, in order to make the school and/or the teacher appear favorably on assessment reviews).

However, questions remain as to which system is the best to assess the academic competency of graduating students. By far the most often used tool of assessment is the multiple-choice examination, in many cases combined with a writing sample. This, in combination with passing grades in key subjects and a minimum number of credit units, seems to be a growing method of choice for ensuring minimum competency levels of high school graduates in the United States. Because graduation from high school may be dependent upon passing an "exit exam," the process has been dubbed "high stakes testing."

Legal Authority for Setting Educational Standards

Most education reform since the 1980s has focused on "performance-based standards" which ostensibly indicate a minimum level of academic achievement that all graduating students should have mastered. Some important laws concerning standards-based school reform include:

The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in January 2002, refines and makes major amendment to Title I (see below). Among other factors (like substantial flexibility for states in the use of federal funds), the new law requires states to assess reading and math skills in students from grades three to eight on an annual basis.

The Educate America Act (20 USC 5801 et seq.) is only binding upon states that accept its grant funding (nearly all) but sets as its primary goal the development of strategies for setting statewide student performance standards and for assessing achievement of those standards.

Title I of the Improving America's Schools Act of 1994 (20 USC 6301 et seq.) contains an explicit set of requirements for states to submit plans for challenging content and performance standards and assessing student mastery of the requirements in order to receive Title I funds (the largest federal school aid program).

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), (20 USC 1400 et seq.) was substantially amended in 1997. The Act requires that states which receive grant funds under its auspices must develop IEPs (individual education plans) for students with disabilities or who are deemed in need of special services. The 1997 amendments required states to develop policies and procedures to allow students with disabilities to participate in state and district-wide testing programs, with necessary accommodations.

Legal Challenges to Educational Testing

Courts have had numerous opportunities over the decades to pass on the validity of education testing in conjunction with high school graduation and promotion (e.g., to the next level grade). Most legal challenges have been grounded in the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S...

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