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Published in Print: October 26, 1981, as The Incompetence of Competency Testing

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The Incompetence of Competency Testing

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If secondary-school teachers of English respond less than enthusiastically to competency-testing programs, their tepidity is both understandable and warranted. Largely confined to items that assess the low-level skills of usage, editing, and functional reading, the tests imply a narrow public definition of English, one that is at odds with what teachers believe the subject to be.

For test makers, English encompasses only those components that easily lend themselves to the composition of machine-scorable items, particularly items that find quick justification in the marketplace.

Because they are difficult and expensive to assess, proficiencies in oral communication and in listening are ignored. Because they have no immediate pragmatic value in the business world, comprehension and appreciation of literature and nonprint media are dismissed in favor of the ability to read want ads, employment forms, and tax guides. What is germane to business and efficient for scoring displaces what is educationally sound. English, a subject as deep and mysterious as the repetitive miracle of human speech and as grand in scope as the panorama of literature, is laid out on a computerized procrustean bed and reduced to minuscule size.

On those rare occasions when competency tests do call upon students to produce actual pieces of writing, the tests call for far too few samples over far too short a period of time, rendering highly suspect any attempt to draw inferences from results. Those taking the tests are usually forced to address themselves to unspecified audiences for undefined purposes under artificial circumstances or occasions. Furthermore, they are expected to produce coherent pieces of written discourse under the redoubtable tyranny of the clock--usually in 20-to-30 minute periods, less time than it takes most professional writers to warm up to a subject.

In short, the topics as well as the conditions under which students are expected to compose defy what teachers of English know about writing: it is a complex, often time-consuming process, one that involves discovering, arranging, and revising one's thoughts in the light of specified occasions, audiences, and purposes.

To be adequate, competency tests would require students to produce multiple samples of writing along the full range of rhetorical modes, since each mode or category requires the use of both overlapping and discrete skills: Students able to compose poignant accounts of personal experience may not possess the rhetorical skills needed to compose closely reasoned arguments on controversial issues.

Nor, to be adequate, should the testing take place on only one day. Since the quality of any student's writing varies somewhat from day to day and from assignment to assignment (even when assignments are similar), the categories of writing to be evaluated would need to be sampled more than once across a span of time, perhaps of months, under natural classroom conditions. Despite the towering costs of such a proposition, anything less deludes citizens into believing that current competency tests measure how well students write. They do not.

By ignoring literature, competency tests imply to the public that literature, rather than being an essential part of the curriculum, is a pedagogical and aesthetic frill. To be adequately realized, human life must be concerned with more than the ability to compute the weekly cost of groceries, to follow directions, and to read want ads. To enhance students' lives, schools must continue to assume a fundamental responsibility for cultivating, nurturing, and refining students' imaginations. Although education of the imagination is a goal difficult to achieve, and its processes are not readily scored by machine, the goal is nonetheless worthy, nonetheless vital to the health of a democracy and to the well-being of its citizenry.

Literature remains a singular resource for enabling students to enter the lives of persons different from themselves--different in age, in race, in sex, in acculturation; a singular resource for transporting students across barriers of time and space--into ages past, present, and future, and into lands real and imaginary. Literature permits students to compare their attitudes, values, and experiences with the attitudes, values, and experiences of others, and, by means of that process, to confirm both their individuality and their shared humanity. It leads them to appreciate the ways by which human language, as it is used by literary artists, can give form to seeming chaos, meaning to seeming insignificance, beauty to seeming banality.

Because they fail to evaluate students' ability to interpret adequately a rich variety of literature and to appreciate its worth, to listen critically and to speak effectively in multiple contexts, and to write competently in different rhetorical modes for diverse audiences and occasions, competency tests by their nature reduce the English curriculum and mislead the public. They deserve neither the financial support nor the press coverage they receive.

Vol. 01, Issue 08, Page 24

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