Told You So

A History of Blanket Testing

“The only thing we learn from history is that we never learn for history.”

Did I hear you say that things are different these days? Well. This is a personal account from back when. .
In 1980, I visited the USA and the UK for the express purpose of studying the Minimum Competency Movement in the USA and the Assessment of Performance Unit in the UK, both politically-produced ordurous reactions to the Back to Basics meme of the 1970s. The 70’s “standards debate” had been a vicious attack on schooling that was lasting far too long. In Australia, it was led by “The Bulletin” and one or two conspicuous non-teaching attention-grabbers in each state. It died in Australia as it deserved to do before the the educational dementia of national blanket testing set in. Not so in USA. Sad consequences there as reported below. [ Australia made up for it in 2008. ….in spades.]

Minimum Competency Testing  – 1980

Fresh from my trip, I was asked to write an article for The Canberra Times. It was printed on 4 August, 1980 and headlined : Minimum Competency Testing: A Spreading Educational Malignancy in the United States. An extract from the article was repeated and highlighted : “Since the future of a country depends on the attention that it gives to its greatest resources, spare some tears for 21st century USA. Its destiny is clear and the news is not good. For Australian children’s sake now and for our country’s sake in the future – pray that the malady does not spread across the Pacific.”


“I don’t like the Minimal Competency movement. It’s bad psychology; it’s bad measurement; it’s bad thinking. It’s rooted in the fiction that we know what skills in school ensure success in life”.
These are the words of Professor Gene Glass, meta-analyst, who is well known for his research into class size. He is one of many who are reacting to the spreading educational malignancy in the United States. It is called Minimal Competency Testing.

The movement was spawned by the “decline theorists” of the 1970s who were enormously successful in perpetuating their myths of a decline in standards in most Western countries.

Their calls were based on a simple nostalgia for an unknown golden age, when each student was supposed to have been as competent as Greg Chappell is with his cricket. Their credo was taken up by legislators who called for proper surveillance of the school system. Laws have been introduced in many US States that have called for testing of students, especially those graduating from high schools. In most States, if a student does not pass the test, a graduation certificate is not issued.

What have been the consequences?

Where the minimal competencies are listed as basic survival skills [e.g. changing a tyre, knowledge of first aid], the curriculum becomes a farce and students are not extended. Where the list includes higher-order skills [e.g. a good knowledge of calculus], teachers concentrate on the most difficult aspects; and the important aspects of the curriculum are neglected.
Test-publishing firms are having a field day. A contract for a State or school district represents big business and lobbying is intense. Whether a contract is won or lost, publishers move in on schools hawking audio-tape presentations that promote “beating the test”. Current prices are around the $200 mark.

When a state or district issues its list of competencies, it makes promises. These can be tested in court and the American notion of democracy encourages such litigation. Civil-rights lawyers are having a field day ….”for that same reason that Willie Sutton robbed banks. That’s where the money is”, Professor Glass says. Within the courts, judges make decisions about the activities of schools. They tend to direct school districts as to what they must do.

Educationists, many retired from schools, establish private firms selling seminars, workshops. lecture tours and packaged kits on how to cope with the achievement of basic competencies.

A Mess

All in all, it means that the test publishers, the legislators, the judiciary and a host of middlemen take control of the school curriculum. Parents and teachers are left out in the cold. It’s a mess.

Patriotic American are most concerned, for the future of their country is seen to be at risk. The essential aspects of education that are required for the citizens of the new century are seen to be in jeopardy. Children are seen to be basically lazy and a loose confederation of “back-to-basics” pressure groups are jealous of the freedom to learn, that society in the 60s and 70s had extended to its young. Children need to be smartened up, threatened with failure and reminded of their incompetence to fill today’s jobs.

Actually, one needs a strong will to suggest that schools and children are growing worse. Some groups, businesses and individuals have that twisted will. They seek to ensure that public school systems break down and given to free enterprise. They are determined; and assume a divine right to claim ownership of a centralised curriculum which is easy to control and peddle.

Blanket testing of competencies doesn’t solve anything. Testing of any kind , when necessary, needs to have a human, encouraging tone that disposes children to upgrade their learning styles with confidence.

The children of the United States are compelled by law to endure great stress for some years, as this innovation works itself to death. Currently, the love for learning is being converted to the drudgery of work and punishment for failure.

Since the future of a country depends on the attention that it gives to its greatest natural resource, spare some tears for 21st century USA. Its destiny is clear and the news is not good. For Australian children’s sake and for our country’s sake in the future, pray that the malady does not spread across the Pacific.


This was 34 years ago! It is difficult to understand how anyone who had anything to do with schooling, with an E.Q. ‘above room temperature’ would allow the same conditions to re-emerge or to spread anywhere south of the equator. MCT, using blanket testing devices, has been shown to be an abomination. That was 30 years ago!

In Australia, serious educators, with a reasonable E.Q., of course, have known about its foul intent for decades. They just have no power.

But then in 2008, twenty-eight years after this warning, low E.Q. scatophagic politicians, middlemen testucators and money-hungry child-molesters took control.

[E.Q.: Education Quotient is a measurement of educationism determined on the same sort of scale as I.Q.]


APPENDIX I have been most fortunate with my experiences as a primary education freak. This 1980 trip was dedicated to trying to find out as much information as possible about minimum competency testing and large scale assessment of pupil performance. I started by re-visiting UCLA and I/D/E/A in Los Angeles where I had spent some time ten years earlier.

I caught up with an old pal from that period, who had just resigned from the superintendency of a school district where there was a large weapons research facility. Scientists controlled the school board and had decreed that no child would be given a graduation certificate who had failed to pass a calculus test. Sol Spears argued through the media that the notion was crazy. He had a doctorate, but did not know the first thing about calculus. He was forced out. It was an extreme [one hopes] example of what can happen when child-molesting testucating sciolists take over the curriculum.

I visited other groups and people who were pursuing an interest in MCT : North West Lab. in Portland, Oregon; Gene Glass at the University of Colorado, whom Barry McGaw of ACARA was also visiting in an academic measurement capacity; and AASA [Bill Spady] at Washington DC.

I left the US sharing the abhorrence of many, many high-octane educators there of the notion of blanket testing being used as a fearsome weapon of much destruction. As a weapon of accountability, it was entirely useless. As a diagnostic tool it set individual progress back many years. It was a gung-ho, crazed approach, carelessly conceived. As Gene Glass summarised : blanket testing is based on a minimum lethal dose attitude, on payment by results, on making pupils feel inadequate. “…nothing to do with science and technology; not with psychology; not with measurement. It has to do with politics.”

I then headed for the Assessment of Performance Unit – APU – established by Margaret Thatcher, Minister for Education in England. This unit was divided into sub-units, each independent and removed from each other; each employing methods of assessment that varied. I visited each sub-unit – Mathematics, Literacy and Science. Each ,it seemed to me, was trying to avoid, as much as possible, the pen-and-paper mode of testing even though the assignment of a value to each testing exercise was tricky.

There were some innovative ideas, but I gathered that there was a general feeling of despair and frustration at trying to find the magic formula for mass testing….already conscious of the futility of the same-moment-in-time blanket mass pen-and-paper mode. Tests were random, but each sample involved endless techniques and modes of scoring. As one testor asked, “How do you test the efficiency of each component of a space rocket when its hal-way to the moon?”

The units saw the futility of treating school subjects in isolation.The only conclusion that was common to each unit was: that primary school classrooms were such complicated operations, so intense, and so different from each other that any mass testing debauched individual intellect, was a serious threat to each person’s cognitive development and an enormous waste of time….especially for those who needed more closer and warmer support than the average.

I was especially disappointed with the deterioration in the level of enthusiasm shown by England’s teachers for the spirit of teaching itself, that had been the key feature of my observations in 1970. It had been a child-focussed, busy, achievement-centred, exciting place of learning then. No more.

The only thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history.

Phil Cullen 41 Cominan Avenue Banora Point Australia 2486 07 5524 6443

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