Testing: The Competency Controversy

This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email sftp.publishing@gmail.com

Testing: The Competency Controversy

by Pamela George

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 11, No. 6, November/December 1979, p. 12–16

Educational testing in America has become a cradle-to-grave arbiter of social and economic mobility. Tests determine who succeeds and who fails, who receives remedial or enrichment services, who goes to college or graduate school, who has his or her way paid, and who practices medicine, law or the other prestigious occupations.

In perhaps the ultimate expression of their power, tests are now being used to reduce 12 years of public education into a set of specific questions which, if answered correctly, entitle a student to a high school diploma, the traditional ticket to upward mobility in America. Students who fail these competency tests may receive certificates that they attended school but no official statement that they mastered the basic skills of reading and mathematics. Officially, they are labeled “incompetent.”

The movement to test students’ competency as a minimum basis for awarding high school diplomas is growing steadily across the nation. Forty states have begun or are planning testing programs, partly from the belief that testing of essential skills will raise academic standards and increase educational achievement.1 Strategies for administering competency tests vary, but in most cases high school students take the test in the fall or spring of their junior year. If they fail on the first try, they can take the test in the fall and/or spring of their senior year. Some states have current or pending legislation which provides for remedial instruction services for the students who fail.2

Taken at face value, the idea that competency testing can assess basic skills and improve educational achievement is immensely appealing. Children should learn basic reading and calculation skills in 12 years of publicly financed education. Indeed, as early as the 1840s one state—Massachusetts—began requiring students to pass a test in order to graduate from high school.3 In the 1870s, the New York legislature ordered schools to “furnish a suitable standard of graduation.”4 By the turn of the century, educational psychologists like E.L. Thorndike were advocating tests as a means to improve the quality of education: “We may not hope to achieve progress,” said Thorndike, “except as … measuring sticks are available or may be derived.”

In addition to this long-standing dependence on testing, a number of factors have fueled the current drive to install competency exams in American schools:

  • A desire for more scientific management. Despite more than a decade of unsuccessful attempts to apply controls from the business world to the educational arena, enthusiasm for competency tests stems partly from the belief that scientific management can improve the schools. The desire is to make schools more “accountable” and “businesslike,” more subject to “system analysis, planning models, budgeting-systems, and cost-benefit analysis.”5 Most of these proposals, modeled on industrial traditions of problem solving, ignore the complexities of the U.S. educational system.
  • A shift of attention from equality in educational opportunity to excellence of academic achievement. Schools still discriminate on the basis of race, economic status, handicaps and sex; but policymakers have turned from the issues of equality raised in the 1950s and ’60s to a greater concern for making educational instruction efficient and effective. Many observers, like Arthur Wise, call this conservative goal “a reaction to efforts to equalize the distribution of educational opportunities and resources.”
  • A rise in public concern over burgeoning costs. More than one-third of the annual expenditures of state and local government goes for education.6 Increasingly, taxpayers are demanding proof of the return on this investment; consequently, policymakers call for more testing to verify the system’s performance.
  • An increase in the role of private business in education. A plethora of test development companies, consulting firms, curriculum suppliers, technical advisors and testing experts have enjoyed a monetary windfall from servicing the growing educational establishment. They encourage the notion that competency tests are needed—and they profit accordingly. For example, a hefty proportion of the one million dollars spent to develop and. test North Carolina’s first exam went to McGraw-Hill Publishing Company. The test companies profit further by marketing “remediation kits” to failing students, harassed teachers and anxious parents.
  • Parents’ fears about their children’s employment future. Figures for the unemployment rate among youth 17 to 20 range as high as 22 percent for whites and 52 percent for blacks. Parents hear these numbers as well as predictions of more inflation and/or recession, and they turn to competency testing as a means of certifying that their child can read and calculate, and thus compete more successfully on the job market. Of course, the premise behind this logic is that large numbers of other children will be certified as “incompetent.”

The prospect of officially labeling young people as incompetent raises serious concern among many educators and parents. They fear that the tests will disproportionately affect the poor, cultural and racial minorities, and the disabled. In calling for a moratorium on competency testing, they have identified a number of critical problem areas with the tests:

  • Accountability problems: who’s responsible for the failure? In North Carolina 51 percent of the high school juniors failed the first minimum competency tests given in 1978. In Florida, the failure rate was 36 percent on the 1977 test. Recent tests still produced failure rates (17 and 15 percent respectively) that indicate hundreds of thousands of students nationwide will fail to meet this prerequisite for high school graduation.

These test scores suggest a gross failure of the schools to educate. But rather than view the scores as proof of the need for a greater public commitment to education, current use of the numbers places the full burden of unsatisfactory performance upon the student. Competency tests “blame the victim” by making students pay for the failure of the entire educational system. Ironically, while the demand for competency testing grows, new federal legislation for handicapped children puts the burden of responsibility for a child’s learning on the educational institution, not the child. The concept of “zero reject” contained in the new law for special education for handicapped children—i.e., a teacher cannot opt out of teaching a child to read because the child may have some learning idiosyncracy—does not apply, according to the philosophy behind competency testing, if the child is “just” poor or black. The system assumes responsibility for some children, but not others.

Some teachers’ unions also oppose the shift in accountability which competency tests symbolize. They fear the tests may be used to measure the teacher’s performance, blaming the instructor rather than the school system for the high failure rates. The tests may then become the basis for making employment, promotion and merit pay raise decisions.7 Unions and individual teachers voice a justifiable concern that they may become scapegoats for the low scores in a given school or school district.

The central accountability question remains: who should be held responsible for the failure of large numbers of students to demonstrate basic reading and math skills? The competency test may do more to obscure this valid question than to clarify its answer.

  • Racial and cultural problems: the new segregation? Though policymakers and educators supporting competency testing emphatically deny any cultural bias in the tests, opponents note that competency testing did not become a concern until schools were desegregated. Some black parents suspect that one goal behind this new movement to “protect standards” is resegregation within supposedly integrated schools. Whether resegregation is an intended or unintended consequence, regrouping of students based on test scores is likely. Such “tracking” will particularly affect black and poor children, since their scores arc lower than their white and more affluent classmates. A 1976 Southern Regional Council report predicted that “tracking based on competency test results may become the new segregation” in Southern schools.8
Southern Exposure

In North Carolina in the spring of 1978, 85 percent of the black students taking the tests failed, while 37 percent of the whites failed. Similarly, the Florida scores showed that 77 percent of the blacks failed compared to 24 percent of the whites. In the most recent tests, which were adjusted in difficulty, the ratio of black-to-white failure has actually increased: 36 percent of the black students taking the test in North Carolina failed, over five times the failure rate of whites; 60 percent failed in Florida, almost four times the white failure rate. Results of the first testing in Virginia demonstrate the same discrepancy, with the proportion of blacks failing the test five times higher than that of whites.

The high failure count also affects educational opportunities for those minority students not labeled in-competent. In many state universities, admission quotas are based on the black-white ratio of graduating high school seniors in the state. The new high school graduation rosters, based on those who survive the competency test, will significantly alter the black-white ratios, and as a result, fewer—not more—minority students will be admitted to traditionally white universities.

Another controversial issue related to the test’s racial and cultural bias is the way the high failure rates coincide with the increasing demand for a low-wage pool to attract industry to the South. Last year, in a symposium at the University of North Carolina, an economist with Burlington Industries, the state’s largest employer, argued that the main reason North Carolina had the lowest average industrial wage in the nation was because it has a low “per capita level of educational attainment.” Though it probably does not take a high school diploma to monitor shuttles on a Burlington loom, the competency test criterion can be used by companies like Burlington to justify continued low wages. Partly as a result of this link between per capita educational levels and industrial wages, parents have seen the competency tests as a mechanism to ensure their children jobs. In fact, what may happen is that the “failures” will be hired at lower wages, pushing out the more “competent” students. The competency testing movement thus is aimed toward two contradictory goals: industrial pressures for lower wage rates and placation of middle-class fears about unemployment.

  • Technical problems: what competencies, what minimum? For a minimum competency exam to be fair, the school curriculum must be designed to teach the skills being tested. But the test’s proponents argue that a child should be able, for example, to compute the most economical size of a grocery item, to use the yellow pages, or to understand a tax form—all skills which may not be directly taught in school. This is, of course, unfair; it may also be illegal. Merle McClung of the Center for Law and Education says that if a diploma is denied on the basis of subject matter never taught, such a denial is a violation of due process of law.9

Opponents of the exams also say students have not received sufficient prior notice that scores on competency tests will determine whether or not they graduate. In North Carolina, Florida and Virginia, eleventh graders were told only last year that they had to pass the exams in order to get a diploma. McClung argues that traditional notions of due process “require adequate notice of any rule which could cause irreparable harm to a person’s educational or occupational prospects.” The introduction of tests as graduation criteria does seem to change the “ground rules” after students have completed 10 or 11 years of school. Already, two class action suits (see box) claim that inadequate prior notice violates the Fourteenth Amendment, which safeguards individual rights and guarantees the due process tradition.

Southern Exposure

Yet another technical problem with minimum competency testing is the obvious subjective, and perhaps arbitrary, basis for assigning cut-off scores to divide those who pass from those who fail. The average cut-off score for passing the tests is 70 percent. However, by adjusting the difficulty level of the tests’ items, administrators can pass or fail as many students as they want. So the value judgments underlying the setting of cut-off scores are not clearly recognized, or at least are not made clear to parents. One critic warns that no amount of elaborate statistical data can do away with the subjectivity involved in setting what “minimum competency” should be.10 The decision is clearly as much political as scientific.

  • Drop-out problems: a flight from the tests? Wherever the cut-off point is set, failure and the threat of failure will affect the school drop-out rate. In North Carolina in 1978, over 15 percent of the high school sophomores dropped out in the summer before their junior year, shortly before the administration of the first competency test. Educational policymakers chose to give the exam in the first semester, directly after large numbers of discouraged students, who might boost the failure rates, left school. Time reported the flight of Florida high school juniors who failed the test to nearby Georgia schools where no competency test criterion is used for graduation.
  • Problems of remediation: compensatory education revisited? In the haste to implement competency testing programs, the remediation efforts designed to help failing students have been poorly planned. To date only eight states have begun bonafide, planned remedial instruction program. Funding for these remedial services is limited. The North Carolina legislature voted only $4.5 million for remedial efforts following the 1978 spring exam. This allocation translates to less than two extra teachers per district. Florida’s Compensatory Based Education Act of 1977 provided $10 million for remedial programs. In both cases the sums are inadequate in view of the large number of students needing additional instruction.

In addition, remedial programs will have to be significantly more effective than special education or compensatory programs have been in the past, if they are actually to reeducate the large number of students who fail the tests. The Tampa Tribune reported that at one Jacksonville high school only nine percent of the students passed the competency exam. Remedial services for so large a mass of students will very likely be impossible. One North Carolina principal confided, “Nobody’s going to check on the remedial programs, so you fake it and say, ‘Sure, we’re doing remediation.'”

Even if remedial programs were adequately funded and were implemented by trained and skilled teachers, providing adequate remediation would be difficult. Students who after 12 years have not mastered the cumulative basic skills required by the test are unlikely to acquire these skills in one session of summer school or in a weekly, optional reading lab. The critical question remains whether short-term remediation can compensate for the failure of schools to teach basic skills in the previous 11 years.

Judicial Action in Opposition to Testing

In October, 1978, ten Tampa-area students filed a class-action suit challenging the legality of Florida’s competency testing program. The suit alleged that the test violates their rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to equal protection under the law. The students claim that the tests perpetuate practices of racial discrimination which have historically been present in Florida. They charge that they were subjected to segregated schools which continue to persist despite the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.

The students further contend that much of their schooling has been inferior and wrought with discriminatory practices. They argue that the testing perpetuates these biases.

U.S. District Court Judge Terrell Hodges has disqualified himself from hearing the lawsuit. No action has been taken on the case since the fall.

Meanwhile, the Florida NAACP and North Carolina NAACP have filed suits alleging racially discriminatory intent in their respective state’s testing programs. No action has been taken on these cases to date.

  • Administrative problems: bureaucrats as educators? The logic of minimum competency testing includes the assumption that schools operate as a bureaucracy. The testing program, designed by the educational bureaucracy, specifies the goals the schools must attain. Bureaucratic structures plan, monitor and evaluate what goes on in the school, reinforcing the drift toward the centralization of educational decision-making away from the classroom into the higher levels of government.

The expanding bureaucracy, coupled with the actual expenses of testing, also makes the cost of education soar. It has been conservatively estimated that the minimum competency testing programs will cost about $50 million annually.11 Hidden costs to school systems not fully accounted for in the figure include possible legal challenges and the high price of remedial instruction. Significantly, these millions will be spent on testing and the testing bureaucracy rather than on implementing more effective teaching methods, such as reduced teacher-child ratios in the classroom.

Alternatives to the present competency testing movement do exist. These vary in desirability and manageability but serve as antidotes to the deleterious effects of competency tests.

  • Reallocation of responsibilities. Federal and state government should be primarily concerned with promoting equality of educational opportunity. When local schools discriminate on the basis of race, economic status, sex or disability, higher levels of government intervention are needed to redress the imbalance. Local governments, boards of education, consumer groups and school staffs should determine educational goals for their communities and evaluate the attainment of those goals.
  • Retarget the tests. The present use of competency tests as high school exit exams should be halted. Standardized tests could be used to audit the performance of systems, rather than the achievement of individual children. Test results, gathered as statistical evidence, should be reported in such a way that the stigma of poor performance is removed from the student, and the burden of improving teaching methods and materials is placed on the educational professional and policymaker.
  • Rethink educational evaluation. We must begin to act on the long professed belief that educational evaluation is much broader than the concept of measurement. A systematic monitoring of what goes on in the classroom would prove considerably more helpful than the students’ answers to a series of questions. Supervisors, researchers and evaluators dedicated to upgrading performance must identify poor learning and poor teaching in the classroom, and inform teachers of ways to improve their effectiveness.

Education has always been vulnerable to the “trial and error” appetite of educational consultants. Educators, as a professional group, seem to exhibit a desperate insecurity easily exploited in public discourse and media brouhaha. Characteristic of this insecurity is their peculiar responsiveness to movements and fads perpetrated by an education industry which profits from gimmicks and faddism. Hordes of experts hawking technologies and tests make the rounds, promising panaceas from public criticism. The fad of competency tests has now achieved the status of law in a majority of the 50 states and is in “full-steam-ahead” implementation in the South. Those who question their awesome consequences are brushed aside as obstructionists or worse. But on closer examination of the short- and long-range effects on the lives and learning of our children, it seems clear that the “costs” of using competency tests, as they are presently being implemented, far outweigh their “benefits.”

Pamela George is an educational psychologist who teaches at North Carolina Central University.

This article appeared in a special issue of Southern Exposure (Vol. V/1, No.2, Summer 1979), “Just Schools,” which explores the progress made and problems remaining in the 25 years since the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. Southern Exposure is a quarterly, available at $10/year individuals, $12/year institutions, from P.O. Box 230, Chapel Hill, NC 27514.

>> Back to Vol. 11, No. 6<<


  1. W. Haney and G. Madaus, “Making Sense of the Competency Testing Movement,” Harvard Educational Review, XLVIII (1978), pp. 462-484.
  2. 1. Gallagher and A. Ramsbotham, “The Competency Program in North Carolina,” The High School Journal (May, 1978).
  3. G. Madaus and P. Airasian, “Issues in Evaluating Student Outcomes in Competency Based Graduation Requirements,” Journal of Research and Development in Education, X, 3, pp. 79-91.
  4. F. Spaulding, High School and Life (N.Y.: McGraw-Hill, 1938).
  5. A. Wise, “Minimum Competency Testing: Another Case of Hyper-Rationalization,” Phi Delta Kappan (May 1978), pp. 596-98.
  6. M. Golladay, The Condition of Education (Washington: HEW, U.S. Publication No. 017-080-01678-8, 1977).
  7. P. Tyler et al, The Florida Accountability Program (Washington: National Education Association, 1978).
  8. R. Mills and M. Bryan, Testing, Grouping: The New Segregation in Southern Schools (Atlanta: Southern Regional Council, 1976).
  9. M. McClung, “Competency Testing: Potential for Discrimination,” Clearinghouse Review, II (1977), pp. 439-448.
  10. G. Glass, “Minimum Competency and Incompetency in Florida,” Phi Delta Kappan LIX (1978), pp. 602-605.
  11. P. Airasian, G. Madaus and J. Pedulla, Issues in Minimum Competency Testing and a Comparison of Implementation Models, Report to the Massachusetts Department of Education (Boston: Boston College, 1978).