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States Experts Oppose Key Competency-Testing Practices

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Copyright 1982 State officials who are authorities on their state's minimum-competency testing programs for students apparently disapprove of several key practices in those programs, a 50-state survey suggests.

Recently made available to some state departments of education, the survey of 50 experts--one from each state--was completed last year by Barbara Capshaw Kohlfeld, then a doctoral student in education at Southern Illinois University, for use in her dissertation.

The survey sample included 49 officials of state departments of education and one aide to a legislative committee on education--essentially the same group that regularly provides information for frequent surveys on state testing programs by the Education Commission of the States (ecs), a Denver-based consortium.

The November 1981 edition of the ecs survey showed that the legislatures or state boards of education in 36 states have established testing programs or have enacted regulations for locally initiated programs. Two other states, according to the survey, have experimented with testing but have undertaken no permanent program.

And "virtually all the rest have looked at it," according to Ms. Kohlfeld, who now teach-es in the Cape Girardeau, Mo., public schools.

When weighed against the findings of the November ecs survey, Ms. Kohlfeld's research shows that her respondents disagree strongly with some common practices. For example:

About 70 percent of the respondents said local school districts should set standards for minimum-competency tests. In 24 of the 36 states that have laws or state-board policies on testing, however, standards are set at the state level, most often by the state board, the department of education, or an appointed commission.

The respondents as a group rejected the use of minimum-competency tests for high-school graduation and pupil promotion. Fifteen states use the tests for graduation or promotion, according to the ecs survey, while four forbid the use of tests for such purposes, and several leave the decision to local school systems.

Overwhelming majorities of the respondents favored minimum-competency tests for instructional improvement, diagnosis of students' strengths and weaknesses, and "district and parent use." The laws and regulations of 19 states specify such uses of testing.

Because many respondents requested anonymity, Ms. Kohlfeld said, the dissertation does not disclose how many of the officials disagree with their own states' policies.

On some issues, however, Ms. Kohlfeld's respondents endorsed prevailing practices.

For instance, the respondents disapproved of competency tests in kindergarten and the first and second grades; few states require testing before grade 3, according to the ecs survey.

And the respondents' preferences corresponded with state practices in most cases on the subjects tested.

The state officials in Ms. Kohlfeld's survey most strongly supported competency testing in the "basic" subjects, such as reading and mathematics. Most states' testing programs emphasize the same areas.

While many educators resisted the competency-testing movement in the 1970's, Ms. Kohlfeld noted, many of the respondents in her survey seemed resigned to "living with ... and making the best of" testing programs imposed by legislatures and state boards of education.

"I think the issue [for the officials surveyed] was working the educational and the political together," the researcher said in an interview. "It was a matter of dealing with the political ramifications: 'If the politicians are going to tell us we have to do this, how can we best do this without harming students, how can we do it in the fairest way?"'

There are indications that legislators have recently paid more attention to educators' concerns about the tests, according to Chris Pipho, who, as deputy director of the ecs information clearinghouse, conducts frequent surveys on testing practices.

The current trend, he said, is for legislators to view competency tests as tools for identifying students' needs--and to provide more money for remedial programs. And while many state legislatures "rushed into programs" in the mid-1970's, Mr. Pipho said, the current tendency is to spend more time debating new legislation and changes in existing laws.

"Wisconsin was the classic example," he said. "They held hearings and debated it for months" last year before postponing action to the legislative session beginning this month.

"The educators [in Wisconsin] have put into the forefront questions nobody has asked before: 'What can be done if large numbers of kids don't pass the test? And can we evaluate teachers using the tests?' If large numbers of students fail, we can't totally hold students responsible."

"Definitely, right now the educators are being listened to," he concluded.

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