The History of PBL, Part 5: The Minimum Competency Testing Movement

Testing is killing learning |

In the last post I did about the history of PBL, I traced its origins back to Benjamin Bloom’s Mastery Learning, which was innovated in the late 1960s and swept across many of the country’s largest school systems in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  I noted that Mastery, which offered some promising but challenging ideas, was eventually dropped as official policy in most districts, the result of a combination of being poorly implemented as well as slightly out of step with the broader political movement.

However, there is another important movement that occurred at a similar time and whose destiny became entwined with that of Mastery, and vice-versa.  That movement was called Minimum Competency Testing (MCT).

MCT had its roots in two different movements.  The first was the need for educational measurement in part spawned by the federal legislation of the mid-1960s.  According to the 1980 journal article, “Minimum Competency Testing Historically Considered” by Daniel Resnick, these new regulations “forced decision making about the standards operating in the school from the local district to the state level. The states, in turn, have responded to these pressures by legislating performance criteria for the schools.” An example is the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Title 1, which required each district receiving federal aid to evaluate its programming and to provide reports to state officials.  

The author also cites the 1969 creation of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam to “examine achievement in ten learning areas, to spot changes in level of achievement over the years and to apply the implication of those changes to national educational policy,” the use of governmental programs that required greater fiscal accountability and whose influence was felt in states and school districts, and finally the influence of litigation in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Ed decision that called upon states to uphold the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution in the era of education.  The author cites one case, 1972’s Robinson v. Cahill, in which courts in New Jersey 1972, the New Jersey courts “interpreted the educational provision for a “thorough and efficient” system of free public schools in the state constitution as one that required imposition of minimum standards for student performance.” 

The growth of state level control over public education dovetailed, unsurprisingly, with the dramatic increase in federal- and state-level (as opposed to local-level) educational funding in the 20th century.  State-level funding rose from 18 percent in 1930 to 45 percent by 1980.  Federal funding increased from less than a percent in 1930 to more than 10% by 1980.  Meanwhile over the same period, local education funding dropped from 83% to about 45% by 1980 (and today sits somewhere around 43%).

Seen this way, it was both a sense of business-minded efficiency as well as a mandate for greater fairness and equality in schools that necessitated increased evaluation of programs at the state level, and which paved the way for a resurgence in educational testing unseen (in the author’s view) since the Progressive era in the early 20th century.  

The use of the MCT for verification purposes is striking.  Resnick reminds us that state-level testing does not have a comparatively long history in the United States, and for most of that history testing was used not as a measurement of educational effectiveness, but to guide students into the best academic or vocational program.

Delving even deeper, Resnick describes the economic challenges on the 1970s — such as youth unemployment, as well as a perception that graduates are unprepared for the labor force — as a strong force in propelling the MCT movement.  Resnick even writes, “Minimum competency tests barely mask a desire to make schools responsible for employment.” Unlike during the previous era of increased testing, in the 1920s and 30s, when economic possibility for graduates meant schools were only responsible, in the public’s eyes, for sending students toward the correct training, since the economic slow-down starting in 1973, schools have been viewed by the public as response for the job training itself.  Writes Resnick, “[Schools] have been expected to produce students who are, in fact, employed and not simply employable.”

The second movement that spawned MCT had its roots in the same political soil, but was driven more by curriculum than purely by assessment.  This movement was based in the variety of outcome-focused movements that cropped up the wake of the educational changes of the 1960s.  In a 1994 article, researcher Thomas Guskey outlines the genesis of the outcome-based movements in education as originating in the 1960s and 1970s, with a movement called “objective-based education.  This approach, situated in what Guskey terms a “back-to-basics movement that dominated American education at the time,” sought to break down complex learning tasks into smaller components arranged in a “scope and sequence” for students to learn sequentially.  However, there was soon a backlash against the reductionist and behaviorist aspects of this approach, and by the mid-1970s:

“. . .  attention turned to defining ‘educational competencies’ and competency-based education.  Competencies were defined as ‘indicators of successful performance in life-role activities’ (Spady, 1977, p. 10), and were popular among curriculum development specialists during the mid 1970’s.”

According to Spady (1977), the spur to this movement was Oregon’s 1972 law requiring new statewide “minimum graduation requirements” by the year 1978.  Spady writes that these requirements were not just academic requirements, but called for three domains beyond ordinary academic proficiency:

“The thrust of these new requirements and standards involved the introduction of three domains of ‘survival level’ competencies as minimum conditions for high school graduation by 1978: personal development, social responsibility, and career develop- ment. In addition to “passing” a normal complement of high school courses, students will be obligated to master locally determined minimum standards in these three “com- petency” areas before receiving a diploma.”

This sounds like today’s “transferrable skills” required of many Vermont students.  This movement was called Competency-Based Education (CBE).  

Yet then, according to several different authors, attention began to turn from this more progressive, Mastery-inspired approach toward a focus on Minimum Competency Tests (MCTs) in the late 1970s, perhaps in part due to the increased need for educational evaluation on the part of state legislators, as well as a growing demand on the part of the public for higher standards expected of students.

In this great article — “The public understanding of assessment in educational reform in the United States” — author Susan Brookhart traces the roots of the MCT movement not only to a desire of the American public in the late 1960s and into the 1970s for a “back-to-basics” approach to education — a reaction to the educational experimentalism of the 1960s — but in particularly to a growing national anxiety following several high-profile media reports in 1975 regarding the decline of SAT scores.  This moment, for Brookhart, spurred greater public enthusiasm for measurable academic standards.  This took the form of MCTs.  Brookhart writes:

“Test scores gained the limelight as the public began to value them as objective measures of educational outcomes. Using what seemed like logical thinking, the public looked to outcome test scores to validate school reforms put in place as a response to a decline in scores on valued tests like the SAT and ACT admission tests taken by college-bound high school students.” 

According to Resnick, “The tests allowed the schools to show the tax-paying public that graduates had been prepared to function at a demonstrable level of competence, and that the schools had therefore been meeting their public responsibilities.”

Once again, this need for educational accountability is contrasted with the more progressive, student-centered movement of Competency Education and even Mastery Learning alluded to by Spady above.  Resnick notes that the MCT movement came about largely against the wishes of professional educators:

“The basic demand for minimum competency testing today comes almost exclusively from legislators, school boards, corporate employers, and local taxpayers. It is not sympathetically viewed by associations of school administrators, teachers, or psychologists.  That these programs have been legislated and decreed on so large a scale without the support of professionals testifies to the lay perception that the high schools, particularly, are not meeting public expectations.”

The movement quickly proliferated.  According to this article, by 1979 some 36 states had laws or regulations relating to MCTs for promotion or graduation, and “All remaining states currently have studies or proposals under way regarding minimum competency requirements.”

My home state of Vermont is a good example.  According to this 1978 article (“Basic Competencies in Vermont,” by Robert Kenney), Vermont made MCTs a graduation requirement starting in 1981.  The genesis of the movement, in Kenney’s words was:

“. . .  developed in response to widespread concern on the part of colleges, employers, and the general public that students were not learning the fundamentals of reading, writing, mathematics, and reasoning. The basic competency program, with its emphasis on individual pupil records, is designed to help teachers ensure that all pupils have the necessary opportunities to master these skills.” 

Apparently Vermont created 51 competencies in total: 26 in English, 25 in math.  These competencies were developed through an five-year process, starting with the development of math competencies in 1973, and then language arts and reasoning in 1974.  It was an exhaustive process:

“Curriculum consultants in the department of education compiled lists of objectives from suggestions made by hundreds of Vermont educators and citizens. Research based on the programs of other states and materials obtained from Educational Resources Information Center, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and popular text books were used to validate the basic competencies. In all regions of the state, open meetings for teachers were conducted at which the competencies were discussed and revised. Attendance at these meetings totaled over 1500 different Vermont educators.”

The program required teachers to keep individual records of students, submit them to the superintendent, and then ultimately to the state commissioner of education.

However, according to Brookhart, enthusiasm for MCTs soon faded and gave way to calls for higher standards, rather than minimum demonstrations of competency:

“By the end of the 1970s, public interest in improving education and remediating youth social problems (crime, addiction, teen pregnancy) remained high, but the available test score evidence did not produce a resounding endorsement for minimum competency testing (Lerner, 1982). The minimum competency testing movement faded (OTA, 1992). Public concern shifted from minimum competency in basic skills to higher standards and assessments that required higher-order thinking skills and complex performances.”

Guskey also describes how, in the search for a description of higher-order educational approaches following the end of the MCT era, a variety of groups created different smaller movements, including “Goal-Based Education” and ultimately “Outcome-Based Education” (OBE).  According to Guskey:

“ . . . because the label ‘outcomes’ was untainted by previous use or misuse, it would not be interpreted with the same narrowness that had come to be associated with “objectives,” “competencies,” and “goals.” Hence was born in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s the label outcome-based education.”

Although the minimum competency testing movement didn’t last long of itself, in many respects it seems to me to have cast the mold for many of the test-centered reforms that came after it, coming to a head with No Child Left Behind in 2002.  In a sense, the MCT movement was the natural reaction to both the increased state-level accountability required by the equality-focused legislation (and litigation) originating in the 1960s), as well as to changing economic conditions and rising national economic anxieties starting in the mid-1970s.  And it was too a reaction to the progressive educational reforms of the 1960s, a belief that education as practiced in the United States was inadequate and must be monitored in the form of standards and testing. 

As best I can tell, the educational community that was invested in Competency-Based education saw the MCT movement as a perversion of the original mission — one that reduced a capacious definition of competency and high school graduation preparedness to just the type of overly simplified, reductive outcome that the movement had sought to get away from.

In a 1992 interview, Bill Spady, the primary advocate of what would later come to be known as Outcome-Based Education, made just this point.  He labeled MCT as an inevitable perversion of the original notion of Competency-Based Learning:

“We have a long history in this country of taking good ideas and bringing them down to such low common denominators that they’re unrecognizable and unappealing. Twelve to fifteen years ago (1977-1980) the big struggle was between “real competency” and what people were calling “minimum competency”: taking a legitimate notion—people need to be competent—and translating that into rigid testing programs to see whether kids could put commas in the right place and add columns of numbers by a certain age.”

In Spady’s view, the MCT movement “destroyed the idea of competency.” This, he claimed was an inevitable occurrence resulting from the push by policy makers to create accountability through often-reductive testing: “Terms get distorted when policymakers get hold of them. It’s understandable; they’re trying to force accountability on a system whose subtleties they don’t recognize or appreciate because they think it’s fundamentally nonaccountable—and they’re right.”

This result reminds one of what happened to Mastery Learning in the 1980s when it was instituted at scale, resulting in a dumbed-down curriculum filled with red-tape accountability measurements and leading to the inevitable backlash.

The MCT movement quickly faded and gave birth to the Standards Movement, with educational reform advocates calling for higher standards rather than minimum standards.  Seen this way, the MCT movement was emblematic of a turning point in American education: it was the first manifestation of public desire for educational accountability, allied with the real name for state level evaluation of programming, federal requirements of evidence of equal protection and opportunity, and the public’s growing preference for the measurement of educational attainment via standardized testing.

The Minimum Competency Testing movement did not last long, but the forces that created it certainly did.

In the next post on the quest to understand modern PBL, I’ll take on the Standards Movement.