Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed October 11, 2023
Since the 1980s, education reform has focused on "performance-based standards." These standards require a minimum level of academic achievement before students may graduate. Each state has its own laws and educational regulations, including competency testing rules. There are also legal challenges to competency tests for setting educational standards.
This section provides information and resources on various competency-related matters. It includes background information on competency testing and state laws. It also discusses legal authorities, challenges, and more.
Competency Testing Background Information
Student testing to track academic achievement began in the 1970s. Some states began making passage of an "exit examination" a prerequisite for high school graduation. These exams were designed to enhance teacher quality in public schools and improve student achievement. States began developing strategies to address the issues perceived in their communities.
The national No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) sought to focus federal funding on certain school districts. Those that demonstrated the most improvement in student performance year after year were considered.
No Child Left Behind required districts to test students at least once in high school. Many schools used their existing high school exit exams. Because the results were a condition for funding, the law put more pressure on students and teachers. Parents complained that programs seemed to "teach to the test." Opponents argued that the law kept students from a well-rounded education.
Adding to the problems were inconsistent standards among states. School districts could waive the NCLB requirements, but that also meant waiving their federal funding. Amid a lack of public support for No Child Left Behind, Congress replaced the act in 2015. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) — which, like NCLB, reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 — became the nation's education law.
Here's a look at common questions about competency testing in American public education.
What Is Competency Testing?
Competency testing is a key part of the U.S. education system. It evaluates students' understanding of specific content areas. These subjects may include English language arts, math, science, and social studies. In a competency-based system, learners must prove they know the material. They cannot move on to the next grade level without a certain score.
What Is Common Core?
The Common Core Standards Initiative was developed in 2009. Its goal was to ensure that graduates have the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed.
The federal government was not involved in developing Common Core State Standards. Rather, statewide officials from both sides of the aisle — the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers — and other groups worked together on the collaborative standards. However, the federal government has encouraged states to adopt and take part in the project.
Almost every state signed onto the standards, though some have begun to pull their support. As of 2023, 41 states still used the full standards, along with the District of Columbia and four U.S. territories.
The standards for classroom material, according to Common Core, require that material be:
- Research- and evidence-based
- Clear, understandable, and consistent
- Aligned with college and career expectations
- Based on rigorous content and application of knowledge through higher-order thinking skills
- Built upon the strengths and lessons of existing state standards
- Informed to prepare students for success in the global economy and society
The standards describe the skills students must meet from kindergarten through high school. Yet states have implemented Common Core standards at different rates. This makes assessing the results challenging. Further, the responses from states that adopted these standards have shown disappointing results.
Supporters of the system claim their student assessments are tougher than the traditional tests. They attribute low scores in schools that adopted Common Core to the higher standards.
How Does Competency Testing Tie Into Common Core?
The Common Core State Standards were designed as a set of high-quality learning goals. They set the benchmarks for what each student should know and be able to do at each grade level. State assessments, like competency tests, are meant to ensure all students meet these new standards.
How Is Competency Tested in Different States?
Different states use different types of state tests. In New Hampshire and California, the state board of education uses a statewide assessment system called the Smarter Balanced Assessment. It matches the Common Core State Standards. Ohio and New York each have unique testing and assessment systems. Some may require testing once or more per school year, while others focus on certain grade levels. Yet they all aim to measure student learning based on the same high standards.
How Does Competency Testing Help With Career Readiness and Technical Education?
Competency tests are important to determine if a student is ready for college or a career. Ideally, these tests ensure that each student has the knowledge and skills they need for the next step in their life, whether that's a technical education program, a job, a liberal arts college environment, or another path.
How Does Competency Testing Support Students With Disabilities and Special Education Needs?
Competency testing in special education is designed to be fair for all learners. This includes students with disabilities. All states offer accommodations to help these students show their knowledge and skills.
What Role Do Stakeholders Play in Competency Testing?
Stakeholders, like the local school board and education department, are important. They work together to set the new standards and graduation requirements. They also help create and improve state tests.
What Is the Role of Professional Development in a Competency-Based System?
Professional development helps teachers stay updated on the new standards and assessment system. It provides them with the tools they need to teach their students effectively. Teachers also help students prepare for competency tests. Teachers, school boards, and departments are to work together collaboratively to ensure that every student gets a high-quality education.
Getting Legal Help With Competency Testing
Navigating the complexities of the education system is difficult. Sometimes, you might need legal assistance. Families or students who believe their rights are not being fully respected may want to speak to an attorney.
Lawyers who concentrate on education law can assist. They can help ensure that public education requirements are met and accommodations provided as necessary. They can also make sure each student's interests are properly represented.
Speak to an education attorney today for legal advice about your child's situation.
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