Competency Tests Linked to Decline In Analytic Skills

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Washington--The preoccupation of educators and state legislators with minimum-competency testing has contributed to the decline in the teaching and learning of critical reading and analytic skills, two new reports by the National Council of Teachers of English (ncte) charge.

Moreover, one of the reports argues, although such tests may be well intentioned and politically expedient, they provide little useful information to teachers. Rather, these and other "objective tests" limit teachers' effectiveness by creating, in the words of one contributor, "a mass-production type of education" in which their time and energy are taken up with assessing "the lowest-level skills."

Apparently in response to such criticism, one report notes, a number of states have already set up panels to examine their schools' use of minimum-competency tests.

Findings from the reports--one based on a survey conducted by the ncte's committee on testing and evaluation and the other, Secondary School Reading: What Research Reveals for the Classroom issued by its commission on reading--were announced at the organization's annual meeting here last month.

In a review of 25 state and district minimum-competency tests, the committee on testing and evaluation found that, in general, test scores told teachers very little about students' abilities that was not already apparent from their classroom performance, according to Seymour Yesner, the Brookline, Mass., high-school teacher who headed the committee.

"Generally speaking, what we seem to have come up with is a notion that these tests may be giving a considerable amount of redundant information, information teachers already know," Mr. Yesner said at a news briefing.

In addition, the committee found, the tests that were intended to measure the effectiveness of curriculums are now a driving force in deciding what should be taught.

"The thing that worries me is the reductive effects of the tests," said Edmund J. Farrell, professor of English education at the University of Texas. English, he said, is becoming a discipline that is defined as "that which can be tested and measured."

"What we're getting is a public definition of English that is a collection of lower-level skills and editing," he said. "I think there's a real navete on the part of the public about testing." The public wants "objective" tests, but fails to recognize that the selection of the items that go on the tests is a subjective process, he said.

"There are limitations to tests, but the public and school boards are unaware of them," Mr. Farrell said.

The growing tendency to focus on "basic skills" may also result in limiting students' career choices, the committee suggested, noting that students are not learning the skills that they will need to compete successfully for more demanding jobs. "Those students who have the ability to evaluate and analyze are going to have the advantage," said Rexford Brown, director of publications for the National Assessment of Educational Progress. "Those who do not are only going to be further behind."

The teaching of literature is also a victim of the minimum-competency movement, Mr. Farrell said.

"Increasingly, literature is being regarded as a frill," Mr. Farrell said. "We define what's important by what's on the test. Literature is being ignored by the test. I also worry about the imaginative life of the citizen in a democracy."

If states and school districts continue to use competency tests, the committee recommended, the tests should be modified so that they diagnose students' educational needs and suggest teaching strategies that will effectively meet those needs.

"We're very much in favor of monitoring the progress of students in a way that tells what their strengths and weaknesses are," Mr. Brown said. "We don't feel that the minimum-competency movement that began in the late 1970's was comprehensive enough, and that's our criticism."

The debate over the scope and uses of minimum-competency tests, he said, has led 24 states to set up commissions to re-examine their testing programs. And in New Jersey, tests at three grade levels have been eliminated because they yielded little useful information, according to Nancy Broz, a New Jersey teacher who served on the commision. "What they're finding is that there's nothing they can report back to the schools that the schools didn't already know. Now, there is a concern to get 'quality testing,"' Ms. Broz said.

In the other ncte report--Secondary School Reading: What Research Reveals for the Classroom--a group of reading specialists and researchers offer current research findings that could be applied in the classroom. The specialists argue that "major changes in teaching practices need to be made, so that in all disciplines, students get carefully planned instruction in how to learn from books," according to a summary of the report.

The "overuse of multiple-choice tests," is one major factor in the decline of these skills, said Leo Ruth, professor of education at the University of California at Berkeley, and chairman of ncte's commission on reading. "It is a format that lends itself to the mass-production type of education that this country is willing to support," Mr. Ruth said. "It's easy to slap down a workbook in front of a kid. But you get what you pay for. Multiple-choice questions test only the lowest-level skills."

Because students are kept busy working on multiple-choice exercises, Mr. Ruth said, they spend little of their time in school reading. "They are too busy dealing with basic-skills exercises to practice the real basic skills of the mind, to learn to think as readers," he said.

Margaret Early, associate dean for academic affairs at Syracuse University, agreed that "the machine-scored answer sheet has done a lot of harm" to the quality of reading.

But tests are not entirely responsible for the decline in students' higher-level reading skills, she said. "Part of the reason why so many secondary-school students have poor reading skills is the quality of the instruction they get. Most of those teaching today entered the school during the baby boom. [At that time], if you could breathe, you were hired. It's also true, unfortunately, that the people leaving the teaching profession today are the best teachers." Too-large classes, Mr. Ruth said, are another factor in the decline of these skills; teachers are simply too busy to devote the neccessary time to each student.

"How can you expect a teacher with 120 students in four classes to take the time to work with students one-on-one or to correct essays? If a teacher spends five minutes on each essay, they can do only 12 an hour. If you have 120 students, that's a tre-mendous amount of extra work," Mr. Ruth said.

The reading specialists and researchers who compiled the report call for:

A realization that junior and senior high-school students, confronting complex texts, from history to physics to novels, need systematic instruction in critical and analytical skills, not more elementary-level "basics";

A commitment to teach all students how to "read to learn";

A rethinking of testing and teaching practices to make reading more than mere extraction of facts from print, focusing instead on students' prior knowledge, analysis of text, and synthesis of ideas;

A commitment by administrators to involve teachers in all disciplines in teaching through critical reading, integrated with discussion and analytical writing assignments;

The reassignment of reading specialists to teach teachers how to teach advanced reading; and

An effort by the publishing industry to set higher standards of organization for textbooks.

The report, Secondary School Reading: What Research Reveals for the Classroom, is available from the National Council of Teachers of English, 1111 Kenyon Road, Urbana, Ill. 61801. Cost: $10.75; $9.50 for council members.

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