Minimum Competency Testing

Student competency testing, although often controversial, has become the centerpiece of school reform legislation. Testing policies are widely supported by the general population and are used to raise academic standards. Conceptually, tests are designed to promote better teaching and learning, increase student motivation, increase graduation rates, lead to a more productive workforce, and instill greater confidence in the public schools system. However, the research regarding the effectiveness of competency testing is mixed.

Legal analysis of public school competency tests began with Debra P. v. Turlington (1984), a case involving a 1978 Florida statute requiring students to pass a functional literacy test prior to obtaining high school diplomas. Plaintiffs challenged the law, alleging a disproportionate impact on Black students. Initially, the Fifth Circuit upheld an injunction for the students, because the law violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “by perpetuating past discrimination against black students who had attended segregated schools for the first four years of their education”.

On remand to a federal trial court, the Eleventh Circuit (since the Fifth Circuit was split, Florida was part of the new Eleventh Circuit) considered the legality of the test. The court held that the competency testing program was a valid measure of the instructional program and provided adequate notice for the students to pass the test. Additionally, the court ruled that there was no link between the disproportionate number of Black students failing the test and a history or prior discrimination. The Eleventh Circuit court acknowledged the state’s right to deny diplomas to failing students.

In a more recent decision, the State Board of Education of Louisiana implemented a requirement that all public school students pass an exit examination prior to receiving high school diplomas. In Rankins v. State Board of Education (1994), five students who failed the test filed suit claiming that their equal protection rights were violated, because private school students were not held to the same requirement. The court upheld the testing requirement on the basis that it was rationally related to the state’s interest of ensuring minimum competency for students who were awarded diplomas.

Although there is substantial evidence that competency testing has a disproportionate effect on children who are of limited English proficiency, minority students, and those with disabilities, the courts have not directed states to abandon their use of the tests for these students. For students with disabilities, the courts generally have supported the use of examinations as a criterion for graduation as long as there are accommodations and modifications available.

In GI Forum v. Texas Education Agency (2000), a federal trial court in Texas was of the opinion that although minority students performed significantly worse on a state competency examination than nonminority students, the former were rapidly closing the achievement gap as measured by the test. Consequently, the court found that because minority students were not disadvantaged, the examination did not violate their due process rights, because it was not unfair. In upholding the test, the court noted that the examination met the requirements of curricular validity by measuring what it purported to measure. In sum, the court ruled in favor of the state educational agency, permitting the use of the exit examination as a valid requirement for obtaining a diploma.

Some authors suggest that the use of minimum competency tests will bring about the resegregation of the public schools. The first argument proposes that children from historically low socioeconomic backgrounds, typically minority students, are unfairly tested alongside students from more affluent backgrounds. Debra P. and G.I. Forum appear to dismiss this argument. The second argument holds that these same students will be placed in special remedial classes, which will, in essence, resegregate student populations. This second argument is yet to be used as a challenge in court.

As the backbone of educational accountability and the subsequent teaching and curricular reforms, policymakers have become enamored with competency testing programs. Performance on competency tests often determines whether students are promoted from one grade level to another or are awarded high school diplomas. The courts tend to support the policy of competency testing as long as the system provides for validity (measures what it purports to measure) and reliability (consistently measures what it purports to measure) and the students have the opportunity to learn the material to be tested.

Mark Littleton

See also Debra P. v. Turlington; Graduation Requirements; Testing, High-Stakes

Further Readings

  • McCall, J. (1999). Now pinch hitting for educational reform: Delaware’s minimum competency test and the diploma sanction. The Journal of Law and Commerce, 18, 373–395. 
  • O’Neill, P. (2001). Special education and high stakes testing for high school graduation: An analysis of current law and policy. Journal of Law and Education, 30, 185–222. 

Legal Citations

  • Debra P. v. Turlington, 474 F. Supp. 244 (M.D. Fla. 1979), aff’d in part, vacated in part, 644 F.2d 397 (5th Cir. 1981), reh’g denied, 654 F.2d 1079 (5th Cir. [Fla.] Sep 04, 1981), on remand, 564 F. Supp. 177 (M.D. Fla. 1983), aff’d, 730 F.2d 1405 (11th Cir. 1984). 
  • G.I. Forum v. Texas Education Agency, 87 F. Supp.2d 667 (W.D. Tex. 2000). 
  • Rankins v. State Board of Education, 637 So. 2d 548 (La. Ct. App. 1994), write denied, 635 So. 2d 250 (La. 2004), cert. denied, 513 U.S. 871 (1994).