Minimum competency tests (MCTs) measure the knowledge and skills deemed critical for the test-taker, establishing that he or she possesses these skills at a baseline level. Although often used synonymously with basic skills testing, the term can take some different twists. The typical use of MCTs is at benchmark points in the K-12 system and also for licensure in an employment field.
In the school context, under the No Child Left Behind guidelines, MCT scores influence decisions at two levels: whether individual students can progress to the next benchmark (including graduation) and whether or not the school is making adequate yearly progress (AYP) toward governmental targets. In the employment context, decisions rest on the competency of a potential employee with regard to “safe” practice, thereby protecting the public from harm in such fields as nail technicians, airline pilots, and school teachers.
Among competencies typically tested are the traditional basic skills (i.e., the 3 R’s) as well as specific content deemed critical for the decision point. In school-based MCTs this might include science. In the professions it would include job-related skills. Nail technicians would need to know how to prevent fungus infections, airline pilots how to land the plane, and teachers their content areas and pedagogical techniques. PRAXIS II is an example of an MCT for teachers.
The decision about whether or not a test-taker is minimally competent rests on a cut-off score set by the administering agency that, in theory, is the point that divides the competent from the noncompetent. A particular challenge in the cut score setting (or standard setting) process is finding the score that guards against denying a diploma or license to the competent (false negatives) or permitting graduation or licensure to the incompetent (false positives). The potential error inherent in the judgmental process used to establish cut scores adds to the concerns raised about the accuracy of inferences made.
The national trend toward school accountability caused an upsurge in MCTs, and the global social consequences of K-12 MCT testing are not yet clear. Like all standardized tests, protected and special populations tend to perform worse. Most researchers seek more data on whether or not the population is becoming more literate because of the tests. Some educational agencies are also requiring MCT test data from institutions as a potential measure of effectiveness.
Social consequences of MCTs can be positive or negative, depending on one’s sociopolitical stance. One’s position on “back to basics” could affect perception of curricular and instructional reform as overly narrow or appropriate. Teachers can become more motivated and/or stressed. Similarly, students’ motivation and self-concept can be increased or lowered. The credibility of increased test scores depends on whether or not gains are real or content or cut scores are manipulated. Heightened public awareness of student achievement may rely on invalid inferences that might lead to legislative help or interference.
Recent research has mixed results on MCT effectiveness. In one study, the labeling of low-performing schools caused control strategies that rigidified organizations and only weakly led to instructional reforms but noted that some schools were able to use MCT as a useful mechanism to identify and remediate students having difficulties. One study of 18 states concluded that in all but one state, student learning was indeterminate, remained at the same level it was before the policy was implemented, or actually went down when high-stakes testing policies were instituted. However, another study found that states that attached consequences to the tests had better results.
- Amrein, Audrey L. and David C. Berliner. 2002. “High-Stakes Testing, Uncertainty, and Student Learning.” Education Policy Analysis Archives 10(March 28):18. Retrieved March 25, 2017 (http://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/view/297).
- Linn, Robert L. 2000. “Assessments and Accountability.” Educational Researcher 29(2):4-16.
- Mehrens, William A. 1998. “Consequences of Assessment: What Is the Evidence?” Educational Policy Analysis Archives 6(11). Retrieved March 25, 2017 (http://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/view/580).
- Mintrop, Heinrich. 2003. “The Limits of Sanctions in Low-Performing Schools: A Study of Maryland and Kentucky Schools on Probation.” Education Policy Analysis Archives 11 (January 15):3. Retrieved March 25, 2017 (http://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/view/231).
- Rosenshine, Barak. 2003. “High-Stakes Testing: Another Analysis.” Education Policy Analysis Archives 11 (August 4):24. Retrieved March 25, 2017 (http://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/view/252).
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