Testing for Competency

By Hortense Dixon

Vol. 5, No. 5, 1983, pp. 20-22

Twenty-one states now base teacher certification on the results of competency tests. These tests measure what is considered to be "basic knowledge" appropriate for the eighth grade level. At the same time, an increasing number of states and metropolitan school districts are requiring the passing of a standardized test as a requirement for receiving a high school diploma. Those who fail the test will receive either a certificate of attendance or a diploma noting recipients' deficiencies in basic skills.

In the city where I live, the Houston Independent School District recently adopted competency testing for all currently certified teachers and standardized testing in all subjects in grades nine through twelve with the passing grade for the subject determined by the standardized test results. The Texas State Board of Education has conducted hearings on major curriculum changes that would require more time on the study of science, math and English. The President of the United States has placed his stamp of approval on a "return to the basics."

The national search to discover what has gone wrong with our schools has drawn a tiny circle around teachers, students and standardized test results. This search seeks the comfort zone of an earlier time in a simplistic return to the tree it's. Such a tightly drawn circle zeros in on minimal considerations of what knowledge teachers and students must have today and on the least powerful tools for learning.

Of course teachers and graduates must be capable of reading, writing and computing. But they must also be excellent in comprehending what they read, of analyzing what they hear, of synthesizing new and old information and of judging what is of immediate and what is of long-term value. It is only within a large circle of interpretation that we can make sense of ourselves and of the people and events that are moving us into the twenty-first century.

We are in the midst of a transformation from an industrially oriented society to a society of high-tech, information and education. An historical shift as significant as that from an agricultural to an industrial society is underway. As individuals and groups within American society grapple with the shape, direction and speed of this transformation, the educational system reflects the current fuzzy state of misunderstanding.

Teachers and school administrators, trained for what used to be, are caught between the demands of an educational program designed for the industrial society that is passing and the fuzzy and contentious terrain of emerging patterns of leisure and work.

Sources of information are stratified by special


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interest, fragmented and frequently without conceptual frameworks and disseminated in a variety of media and modes. Learning occurs in many settings outside the classroom and in a highly informal fashion. Our children know about things that their parents and teachers know and understand least. They know more about outer space, ecology, drugs, electronics, computers and the criminal justice system than most adults. They question and challenge the contradictions and paradoxes that their parents and teachers have been taught to accept or dismiss. Teaching them is much more complex than ever before.

Our children have knowledge in areas with which the school has not been historically concerned. Much of their knowledge is attuned to the emerging society. While the educational system enforces the old curriculum, young people are already looking beyond the schools trying to figure out a way to satisfy their interests and needs. Educators continue to teach and test for the simpler skills of an older day. Alarmed, they think competence can be attained by getting tougher and by adding on more years of the same old thing.

Parents, both literate and illiterate, find their education, knowledge and skills useless and obsolete as they are "laid-off," never to be recalled to what they believed to be their life's work in industrial society. They, too, know that their education no longer serves them well. No wonder that they wonder about their children's education, still very similar to their own.

Why don't our children learn to read? Is it because they receive most of their information from sources other than books and printed material? Is it because what we teach them to read is out of touch with the world as they know it? Is is because they learn twice as much from what they see and hear than from what they read? The answers to these questions will not come through competency testing or stratified diplomas.

We did not discover in 1970 or 1980 that "Johnny could not read." It was posed as a question in the 1950s. The most significant answer then, as it is today, concerned the relationship between poverty and learning. We know today, just as we knew then, of the destructive effects of socioeconomic deprivation into which many children are born and continue to live. These findings. which require drawing the larger circle, have yet to be integrated into discussions of educational policy.

Other answers, learned in the 1950s and still outside the circle, showed the importance of caring teachers and of the attention given to developing self-concepts and creative adaptations of the curriculum linked to the child's experiences and exposures. Another fifties" lesson taught us that the expectations of teachers have more to do with students" performance than do IQ scores.

How do we measure a teacher's skills in helping students from impoverished backgrounds overcome their circumstances? Can such learning be measured by a standardized test? Or such teachers by a competency test?

How do we measure the important role that many black colleges and universities have played in educating black youngsters even while these institutions themselves suffered under discriminatory circumstances? Given this history, what are we to make of the fact that five black colleges in Alabama had the lowest pass rates on the Alabama teacher competency test--with percentages ranging from zero to sixty-five--while the white schools' pass rate clustered in the eighties and nineties with only four falling below seventy-five percent. Such figures raise serious questions about the competency test used, its design and standardized process, the selection criteria and cultural bias.

Such test results also demonstrate how blacks may be more adversely affected by the competency testing movement. The number of black teachers in the South may be reduced at a time when more and more education is required if students are to have hopes for a satisfying future. If there are fewer black teachers, we can expect fewer black students to persist. For we have also recently learned that a major factor associated with the completion rate of students is whether or not there are teachers who are like them, teachers with whom they can identify. Still another generation of under-educated and uneducated blacks stand on the edge of perpetuating a black underclass.

But there is a further failing with regard to competency testing. What the testers are satisfied with--a narrowly conceived "body of knowledge" known as eighth grade competence--gives a false impression to teachers, parents and students that such minimal skills, and these precise ones, are sufficient for "success" in society. Actually, these skills will prepare students to fill some 600,000 new janitor and sexton jobs or 800,000 new fast food and kitchen helper jobs whose low pay and un-unioned status represent the foundation of exploitation upon which the economic inequalities of the South will be perpetuated. Another generation of cheap and contented labor?

As the movement toward standardized testing and "basics" teaching sweeps the South we must see it in relation to this section's old habits and tendencies. We must raise, even if we cannot yet answer, some familiar sounding questions. Is the racial dilemma that has dominated educational decision-making in the South since the Brown decision intertwined in the standardized competency testing movement? Is the historical use of education as a political power chess board and a tool of disenfranchisement flying under a new banner? Is the love affair of Southern elites with economic structures that preserve inequalities undergirding this movement? Are we, in the rush to simple-minded basics, about to position the South for the back-end rather than the front-end of the economic, social and cultural revolution that is already underway?

A new society is unfolding in America and in the South. Its key lies in learning how to learn. In requires


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greater attention to an expenditures for education than we have ever committed. It requires, if we are to honor our pledge toward the promotion of equality, the pursuit of public policy not private advantage.

As we work toward the creation of a just society in the South, we must be sure that what we teach is of value and that how we teach fosters an unquenchable desire to learn. Competency testing does neither.

Hortense Dixon is profesor of home economics at Texas Southern University and serves on the executive committee of the Southern Regional Council.