Minimum Competency Testing (MCT), a type of standardized testing, has played a significant role in public education. Its primary purpose is to test high school students to ascertain that they have at least the minimum skills that a high school graduate should have. This article develops the definition of Minimum Competency Testing (MTC) and its history in U.S. public education. It establishes the relationship between MTC and other assessment programs that have evolved over the years. The paper also examines the major criticism and praise that the testing system has received in its history, and outlines the effects MTC and its legacy, high-stakes testing, have had on public education.
Keywords: A Nation at Risk; Coleman Report; Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA); National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP); National Center for Education Statistics; National Commission on Excellence in Education; Minimum Competency Testing (MCT); The National Board of Educational Testing and Public Policy; Title I
Minimum Competency Testing (MCT), a type of standardized testing, has played a significant role in public education. The basic purpose of MCT is to test high school students to ascertain that they have at least the minimum skills that a high school graduate should have. If students cannot pass a minimum competency test, then they do not receive a standard American high school diploma. Pipho (1997) notes that MCT began "as a simple accountability notion of establishing an achievement floor or minimum level of achievement needed to earn a high school diploma" (¶ 2). He also summarizes a basic debate among MCT proponents and opponents. Those who oppose MCT argue that setting assessment criteria for the minimum knowledge and skills could make that minimum become the norm in schools. Those who favor MCT argue that the system ensures that all students will "learn something instead of getting a diploma solely for seat time served" (Pipho, 1997, ¶ 2). As a national trend, MCT reached its peak in the late 1970's, but the standardized testing that came before this period and that followed should be briefly recounted for understanding both MCT and America's current educational policies.
Standardized testing in American public schools actually dates back to the 1800s, though the use of standardized test scores has significantly changed since that time. Initially, tests were not issued as part of an "accountability system." Although standardized testing continued to grow, and went through a boom period in the 1930s, it was not until a few decades after World War II that tests were issued to help monitor schools and enforce educational standards. Before that time, standardized tests were quite limited; administered mainly to assess the progress of individual students, and to evaluate course curricula (Koretz, 2002, p. 753).
In the 1960's, two developments significantly contributed to the growth of national standardized testing. In 1963 the federal government created a department called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The main objective of the NAEP is to assess the knowledge of students in the United States so as to give the government information for developing sound educational policies. Federal government support of nation-wide, large-scale testing increased sharply after the NAEP began (Grant, 2004, p. 6). The second significant development was a few years later, in 1965, when President Johnson signed into law the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Part of the ESEA is the Title I compensatory education program, which stipulated that schools and children who receive aid through Title I must be assessed. The main method of assessment became standardized achievement tests. In 1974, Congress modified Title I specifically in the areas of assessment. As Gallagher (2003) notes of the change in Title I, "Thereafter, progress toward goals was measured (and schools funded) using standardized scores. By the 1980s, 33 states mandated some form of minimum competency testing, and over 200 million tests were administered annually to determine IQ and academic readiness" (p. 92). Soon standardized testing was also applied to high schools, and MCT grew in popularity. As Koretz observes,
A further, large step in the evolution of accountability-oriented testing was the rapid spread of state-mandated minimum-competency testing during the 1970s. Minimum competency tests were most often relatively easy multiple-choice tests used as a requirement for high school graduation (Koretz, 2002, p. 753).
By the end of the MCT period (in the early 1980's), Walstad observed, "In recent years, minimum competency testing (MCT) has become a major force in American education" (1984, p. 261). Walstad also made several important observations about the ultimate effect of the nationwide MCT trend. He argues that state-mandated MCT causes significant changes in school districts. According to his extensive study, "…many districts reported modifying the curriculum, conducting formal workshops for teachers on MCT, and administering pretests to students" (p. 266). The study indicated that only pretesting caused a statistically significant improvement in the basic skill scores of MCT assessments nationwide. However, the author also observes that "Pretesting has been viewed as a form of 'cramming' and of limited educational value" (p. 266). Walstad also suggests that any test that can be improved through pretesting might not be reliable as a test instrument. On the other hand, he observes that pretesting could be beneficial since this could help reveal which students have learning problems, and it also "gives students practical experience in testing" (Walstad, 1984, p. 266).
Criticism of Minimum Competency Testing
In 1979, as the popularity of MCT was hitting its peak, Arthur Wise of the Rand Corporation leveled some sharp criticism at the entire MCT system. Wise argued that MCT "is based on five assumptions, all of which are questionable" (Wise, 1979, p. 547). Those assumptions are:
- Operationalizing educational objectives will lead to their attainment;
- Measuring the outcomes of education improves learning;
- Generating lots of information from testing is a reliable way to compare states, school districts, schools, teachers and students;
- Training teachers should be done like programming people, i.e. "teachers are like automatons — programmable persons capable of reconstituting their behavior at the behest of legislative fiat";
- Practicing the true science of education is possible "if educators are forced to pay attention to test scores" (Wise, 1979, p. 547-8).
Many others have also pointed out these assumptions as well as additional problems, and the assessment-driven education or high-stakes testing systems have caused some of the same complaints to continue up to the present.
Two decades after Wise's observations, Ramirez (1999) writes that legislators and school administrators design assessment-driven reform so as to influence and control many areas of the education system: "Among the most important of these target areas is the instructional program: specifically, what and how teachers teach" (p. 206). This resonates with assumption number four above, as does Reynolds' observation nearly a decade later. Reynolds points out that, "Pedagogy that is emancipatory, that frees the individual, that makes an individual aware is difficult to achieve when the teacher is locked into an instruction-sheet type of education. Obviously, there are many alternatives to this type of education" (2007, p. 12). Wise also explains the consequence of forcing teachers to deliver what Reynolds describes as an "instruction-sheet type of education." According to Wise,
Big losers are teachers, because they lose whatever modicum of professional discretion that remains to them. Minimum competency testing, like competency-based education, is designed to make the teacher a better bureaucrat. The professionalism of the teacher role is exchanged for the bureaucratic conception of the teacher role (1979, p. 548).
Standardized Test Bias
Another point of criticism that many have made is that the testing system may be unfair. Gallagher (2003) points out that even as far back as 1966, the National Center for Education Statistics sponsored a study which examined issues of equity among racially and ethnically diverse student populations. The study came to be known as the Coleman Report, and one conclusion in that report was that "the most important predictor of school achievement was the student's 'general social context,' or home background and related neighborhood factors" (Gallagher, 2003, p. 91). After the study was released, some testing advocates argued that the findings demonstrated that "home environments, and not biases inherent in standardized assessments" caused lower test scores. However, as Gallagher points out, that argument was later demonstrated to be wrong because tests had design and data analysis flaws (p. 91). However, the main question that the research results poses is, If test results are lower in entire populations of economically disadvantaged children, then is the testing system really fair? Ramirez cites a study that examined standardized test scores. The findings were that,
Eighty-nine percent of the variance of the scores was explained by four variables: the number of parents living in the home, the parents' education, community type, and state poverty rate.…Tests reflect wealth disparity…as opposed to the actual taught school curriculum. On unaligned tests, no school-related variable predicts statistically significant scores (Steffy &...
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