High-Stakes Tests: A Harsh Agenda for America's Children

Status: 
Archived
Subject: 
K-12 Testing

By U.S. Senator Paul D. Wellstone

 

Excerpts from the prepared text delivered at Teachers College, Columbia University, March 31, 2000, to the conference on high stakes testing (see story, p. 4).

 

Education is, among other things, a process of shaping the moral imagination, character, skills and intellect of our children, of inviting them into the great conversation of our moral, cultural and intellectual life, and of giving them the resources to prepare to fully participate in the life of the nation and of the world.

 

But today in education there is a threat afoot to which I do not need to call your attention: the threat of high-stakes testing being grossly abused in the name of greater accountability, and almost always to the serious detriment of our children.

 

Allowing the continued misuse of high-stakes tests is, in itself, a gross failure of moral imagination, a failure both of educators and of policymakers, who persistently refuse to provide the educational resources necessary to guarantee an equal opportunity to learn for all our children.

 

That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children, including poor children, is a national disgrace...

 

Today I want to speak out boldly against this trend towards high-stakes testing. It is a harsh agenda that holds children responsible for our own failure to invest in their future and in their achievement. I speak out because education has consumed my adult life and education is my passion. I speak out because I was an educator for twenty years before I became a Senator. I speak out because as a Senator, I have been in a school almost every two weeks for the past ten years and I have seen, as you have, the inequality so many children confront. I also have seen how much difference a good school and a good teacher can make for a child. It is based on this experience and on what I have seen and heard about the abuse of high stakes tests by many states and school districts across the country, that I speak out today...

 

Making students accountable for test scores works well on a bumper sticker and it allows many politicians to look good by saying that they will not tolerate failure. But it represents a hollow promise. Far from improving education, high stakes testing marks a major retreat from fairness, from accuracy, from quality and from equity...

 

The abuse of tests for high- stakes purposes has subverted the benefits tests can bring. Using a single standardized test as the sole determinant for graduation, promotion, tracking and ability grouping is not fair and has not fostered greater equality or opportunity for students.

 

First and foremost, I firmly believe that it is grossly unfair to not graduate, or to hold back a student based on a standardized test if that student has not had the opportunity to learn the material covered on the test. When we impose high- stakes tests on an educational system where there are, as Jonathan Kozol says, savage inequalities, and then we do nothing to address the underlying causes of those inequalities, we set up children to fail...

 

But instead of doing what we know will work, and instead of taking responsibility as policy makers to invest in improving students’ lives, we place the responsibility squarely on children. It is simply negligent to force children to pass a test and expect that the poorest children, who face every disadvantage, will be able to do as well as those who have every advantage.

 

When we do this, we hold children responsible for our own inaction and unwillingness to live up to our own promises and our own obligations. We confuse their failure with our own. This is a harsh agenda indeed, for America’s children...

 

But affording children an equal opportunity to learn is not enough. Even if all children had the opportunity to learn the material covered by the test, we still cannot close our eyes to the hard evidence that a single standardized test is not valid or reliable as the sole determinant in high-stakes decisions about students...

 

[Here Sen. Wellstone diverged from his prepared remarks to talk about how, as a student with learning disabilities, he did not do well on tests. At one point, nearing completion of his undergraduate work in political science at the University of North Carolina, he applied to the UNC graduate school. He was denied entrance due to low test scores. He then conducted a one-person sit-in until he could meet with the Dean. Wellstone argued that his record of nearly all A’s in political science was surely better evidence that he could succeed in the graduate department than was the test score. He was admitted and earned his Ph.D.]

 

Politicians and policy makers who continue to push for high- stakes tests and educators who continue to use them in the face of this knowledge have closed their eyes to clearly set professional and scientific standards. They demand responsibility and high standards of students and schools while they let themselves get away with defying the most basic standards of the education profession.

 

It would be irresponsible if a parent or a teacher used a manufactured product on children in a way that the manufacturer says is unsafe. Why do we then honor and declare “accountable” policy makers and politicians who use tests on children in a way that the test manufacturers have said is effectively unsafe?

 

There is no doubt that when mistakes are made, the consequences are devastating... The effects of high-stakes testing go beyond their impact on individual students to greatly impact the educational process in general. They have had a deadening effect on learning...

 

Studies indicate that public testing encourages teachers and administrators to focus instruction on test content, test format and test preparation. Teachers tend to overemphasize the basic skills, and underemphasize problem-solving and complex thinking skills that are not well assessed on standardized tests. Further, they neglect content areas that are not covered such as science, social studies and the arts... The richness and exploration we want our own children to experience is being sucked out of our schools...

 

We must never stop demanding that children do their best. We must never stop holding schools accountable. Measures of student performance can include standardized tests, but only when coupled with other measures of achievement, more substantive education reforms and a much fuller, sustained investment in schools...

 

Gunnar Myrdal said that ignorance is never random. If we do not know the impact of high-stakes tests, we can continue as we are now--sounding good while doing bad. High-stakes tests are part of an agenda that has been sweeping the nation. People use words like ‘accountability’ and ‘responsibility’ when they talk about high-stakes tests, but what they are being is anything but accountable or responsible. They do not see beyond their words to the harsh reality that underlies them and the harsh agenda that they are imposing on teachers, parents and most of all students.

 

My legislation, (see story p.1) if enacted, would be only a small, first step among the many things we have to do to improve education in this country. But I am committed to that first step. If those amendments are not passed, at least we will begin a national dialogue about this issue. Already, we are starting to get the message out. I am so thankful that you are holding this important conference and for allowing me to be a part of it. You are leading us in the right direction--toward fairness and equity and a love of learning that will last children their lifetimes.

 

The full text is available on the web at http://www.wellstone.senate.gov/ or by clicking here.