“A Fraud and a Hoax"
Defining competence in incompetent schools
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. ●