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History of Competency Testing

Competency testing has been a significant part of education for a long time. These tests are used to see if students, through all grade levels, meet the education standards set by the state board of education. They play a crucial role in decision-making about the student's progress, including the requirements for a high school diploma.

This article explores the history and current status of competency testing. It focuses on its impact on student learning, public education, and state standards.

The Birth and Growth of Competency Testing

Competency testing was started to ensure every student achieved a certain level of knowledge upon graduation. This is regardless of the student's background. The U.S. Department of Education, along with state laws, created frameworks. They also created accreditation systems to set these standards.

The goal was to have a fair way to measure student performance, whether in general or special education. This was especially important in public schools with a mix of learners from different backgrounds. The tests also helped in the professional development of teachers. The tests informed the use of instructional materials.

Testing students for academic achievement or competency testing information is not new. In the 1970s, some states had prerequisites for high school graduation. Some schools made adequate performance on exit examinations a prerequisite. This was done to enhance teacher quality. It also was done to improve student achievement. This testing was during an era when the basic skills of high school graduates were questioned.

One by one, each state created its own set of requirements for graduating high school students. They tested those standards, reevaluated them, changed them, and enacted new standards. Yet society's misgivings about the quality of American public education continued.

The No Child Left Behind Act

In 2002, President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) into law. This new statute sought to assist schools with the most potential to improve. The act concentrated federal education funding on certain school districts. The districts demonstrated the most year-over-year improvement. NCLB required school districts to offer testing to students at least once in high school. Many school districts used existing high school exit examinations to fulfill this requirement.

Federal funding depended on consistent improvements in test scores. So, high school exit exams became high-pressure events. Many parents and teachers complained that schools were "teaching to the test." This was instead of giving students a well-rounded education. Additionally, each state could set its own passing standards for these tests. This led to differences in the quality of education between the states. President Barack Obama's administration subsequently allowed school districts to waive NCLB requirements.

NCLB has since evolved into the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This law was signed in 2015. ESSA represents a shift toward greater state flexibility in setting education standards. It also represents a shift in states having their own accountability measures. ESSA does this while focusing on student achievement and closing achievement gaps.

Tying Funding to Testing: A Controversial Decision

One of the most debated aspects of competency testing is tying school funding to test results. The government often does this. This is because it encourages schools to reach higher education standards. However, this raises legal issues. Schools in low-income areas might struggle more. They may need more resources to help their students. This creates economic inequality, where wealthier communities have better-funded schools. This decision reflects a complex legal issue, touching on civil rights and education law.

Current State of Competency Testing

The Obama administration implemented a program called Race to the Top. This program allowed school districts to compete for federal funds. The winners would use the federal funding to develop better educational systems and serve as a model for other school districts.

Districts were scored on various factors. One was the adoption of high school testing that used the standards promulgated by the Common Core Standards Initiative. This provides guidelines to educators on the skills high school graduates should have.

However, not all states participated in the Race to the Top program. Not every participating state chose to adopt assessments using the Common Core standards. There are currently two types of high school competency tests. One is an end-of-course, or EOC, exam. This exam tests students' mastery of the material at the end of each school year. Comprehensive exams test students once during their high school career. This is usually in the 10th or 11th grade.

Some states with comprehensive exams use the exams to test mastery of basic skills. Others use them to test readiness for college or a career or "postsecondary preparedness." States that use tests 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, this testing has come under heavy criticism. Since most tests are in English, students 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 believe some testing is useful, but its effectiveness as a teaching tool is not definitively determined. Educators and policymakers struggle to improve public education and constantly try new strategies. This means that laws vary between states, cities, and even school districts and may change yearly. 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 No Child Left Behind and School Curriculum Basics sections.

Getting Legal Help With Competency Testing

Understanding the legal aspects of competency testing can be complex. If you have concerns or questions, seeking advice from legal professionals is wise. Lawyers can help you navigate the sometimes complicated world of education law. They can provide insights into state standards, enrollment processes, and legal systems.

Speak with an education law attorney.

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