top of page

“A Fraud and a Hoax"

Defining competence in incompetent schools

Illinois Times

March 2, 1979

A dispatch from the Illinois front in one of those wars we should never have fought—achievement testing in the public schools. They were known as “competency” tests in 1979, but while they were intended to measure the competence of the students, it was clear from the start that the test-makers, the teachers, and schools were failing too.


Partly to assure a skeptical public that it is really worth all the money they pay to run it. and partly to stave off the imposition of a statewide test by the bureaucratic imperialists at the Illinois Office of Education, officials of Springfield's School District 186 have been busy developing a series of competency tests for the district. Last fall, after a year of preparation, the district approved a pilot program to test how well selected students measured up to what it called "minimum academic standards" in several fields. Those pilot tests are being given now to representative samples of third, sixth, and tenth graders.


Dr. James Nighswander, the district's director of instruction, has said that the results of the pilot tests will determine the standards for the rest of the district's students. Nighswander, mindful of the district's financial problems, has also said that the cutoff levels (the scores at which students may be said to have passed or failed) will be set so that the number of students who are likely to fail will not exceed the number the district can afford to offer remedial instruction to.


It will surprise no attentive student of local schools to hear the doctor say that the system's academic standards are so flexible that they can be manipulated for what are essentially political reasons; expediency has been the birch rod of public education for quite a while. Of course, if the district sets the cutoff levels according to the students' own performance, as it apparently intends, the resulting standards will be self-confirming. If most 186 students are poorly schooled in math, for instance, they should do poorly on the math components of the pilot tests, and that poor performance will determine the standard for what the district will expect from all its students. The incompetent, in short, will be allowed to define what the district means by competence. This approach has been in effect for years with teachers in the form of the tenure system, but never before has it been applied to students.


The fact is that the tests, if instituted, will work to lower the already collapsing level of expectations in the district, no matter where the cutoff levels are set. Teachers will inevitably begin to "teach the test" out of either laziness, compassion, or sense of self-preservation. This is sometimes called "competency-based education" and it means that instruction is lowered so that the minimum eventually becomes the median, and excellence becomes immaterial.


Setting cutoff levels low enough to guarantee that a relatively few students fail (Nighswander calls a five or ten percent failure rate a ballpark figure) will indeed reduce the numbers of students who need remedial attention and thus the cost of providing it. But the result is a test of accounting standards, not academic ones. Worse, it means that no matter how abysmal the students' performance is in absolute terms, the top 90 or 95 percent of them would by definition always be judged "competent." Some critics contend that since competency programs are as much a test of the schools as of their students, the school will fiddle with the tests any way they have to in order to make themselves look good.


And what about that five or ten percent who fail? School board member Leroy Jordan has been the most vocal critic of comp testing in Springfield, going so far last October as to label the movement "a fraud and a hoax." In April Jordan addressed that question at an Urban League candidates' forum: "If we are serious about exit level goals, we should be equally serious about providing support for students to reach those goals. Otherwise, it becomes punitive." Nighswander insists hopefully that most of the failures can get the help they need in their regular classrooms—a novel notion, considering that it is the manifold deficiencies of the regular classrooms that cause so many students to fail such tests in the first place. Jordan, who is the board's only African American member, may be especially sensitive to the criticism that comp testing unfairly punishes the poor and minorities by shifting the burden of failure from the schools to the children.


A few months ago the District 186 superintendent asked the board rhetorically, "What do you do with a student who, despite all the remedial measures, still does not pass the test?" One is tempted to reply, "Make him an educator," which is a satisfying insult but not much of an answer. The issue isn't whether a student fails to learn, but whether the schools will take a hand in officially labeling him a failure. In the past, the schools merely gave such a student his diploma after twelve years and told him good-bye; as doctors are said to bury their mistakes, the schools graduated them.


It is at this point that the problem of setting and enforcing standards becomes more political than pedagogical. Nighswander has admitted that there are risks in imposing too rigorous standards. "If  50 percent of the students don't pass the test," he said recently, "the community will not accept the program." State school superintendent Joseph Cronin has said that such tests "should be built on local needs and values" and "reflect the educational objectives . . . of the community." But the only educational objective of most parents is the equipping of their children with some sort of formal accreditation; they don't care very much whether the kids learn anything, so long as the school system is prepared to say they learned something. Parents are not likely to brook lightly the damage to their children's job and college prospects that failure of comp tests threatens, nor are they likely to accept the costs of adding massive remedial programs—essentially, paying to educate their kids twice—to existing curricula.


If failing, say. 25 percent of the students presents an unbearable political burden to local school officials, one may assume that some way will be found to insure that fewer than 25 percent of the test-takers fail. Such action would bring testing programs into compliance with Cronin's "local needs and values." They would also expose the hypocrises to which popularly elected and financed school systems must resort when they try to enforce educational standards in the name of a public that no longer believes in education. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

bottom of page