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Competency Testing Background Information

History of Competency Testing

Testing students for academic achievement or competency testing information 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. One by one, each state created its own set of requirements for graduating high school students, tested those standards, reevaluated them, changed them, and enacted new standards. Yet society's misgivings about the quality of American public education remained.

In 2002, President George W. Bush signed the "No Child Left Behind Act" (NCLBA) into law. This new statute sought to assist schools with the most potential to improve by concentrating federal education funding on school districts that demonstrated the most year-over-year improvement. NCLBA required school districts to offer testing to students at least once in high school, and many school districts chose to use existing high school exit examinations to fulfill this requirement.

Since federal funding depended on consistent improvements in test scores, high school exit examinations became high-pressure affairs, and many parents and teachers complained that schools were "teaching to the test" instead of giving students a well-rounded education. In addition, each state was allowed to set its own passing standards for these tests, which led to differences in the quality of education between the states. President Obama's administration has subsequently allowed school districts to waive out of NCLB requirements.

Current State of Competency Testing

The Obama administration instead implemented a program called "Race to the Top," which allowed school districts to compete for federal funds. The "winners" would hopefully use the federal funding to develop better educational systems and serve as a model for other school districts. Districts were scored on a variety of factors, one of which was the adoption of high school testing that used the standards promulgated by the "Common Core Standards Initiative ," which provides guidelines to educators on the skills high school graduates should possess.

However, not all states chose to participate in Race to the Top, and not every participating state chose to adopt assessments using the Common Core Standards. There are currently two types of high school competency tests: "end of course" or EOC exams, which test students' mastery of the material at the end of each school year; and "comprehensive" exams, which test students once during their high school career, usually in grades 10 or 11. Some states with comprehensive exams use the exams to test mastery of basic skills, other states use them to test readiness for college or a career, or "postsecondary preparedness." States that use test for postsecondary preparedness are more likely to have adopted the Common Core Standards. Most, but not all, states that have high school assessments require high school students to pass the tests before graduating.

Problems with Competency Testing

While competency testing may help ensure that graduating students are prepared for adult life, they have come under some heavy criticism. Since most of the tests are written in English, students who are also learning English as a second language are unfairly penalized. Secondly, students with disabilities may not be able to pass standardized assessments even though they have the intellectual capacity to do so.

Finally, competency testing is one facet of an educational system with many problems. Many people believe that some testing is useful, but its effectiveness as a teaching tool is not definitively determined. Educators and policy makers are struggling with how to best improve public education, and are constantly trying new strategies. This means that laws vary between states, between cities, and even between school districts, and may change from year to year. Contact your local board of education to learn about the policies that relate to your district, and keep checking back here for updates in this constantly changing policy field.

For more information, see FindLaw's section on No Child Left Behind and School Curriculum Basics.

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