Remarks by U.S. Senator Paul D. Wellstone (MN), at Teachers College,
Columbia University, March 31, 2000
Senator Paul D. Wellstone has died tragically in a plane crash on October 25, 2002. As a living memorial to Senator Wellstone we have reprinted on our website a talk I was privileged to hear in person at Columbia University, March 31, 2000. The text originally appeared in Education Revolution #29. His prophetic words at that time are even more significant today in light of the destructiveness of the current administration's education policies. His voice is irreplaceable. JM
"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. Again, research proves this point. 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."
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. It is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination, that we do not see that meeting the most basic needs of so many of our children condemns them to lives and futures of frustration, chronic underachievement, poverty, crime and violence. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose, allied with one another in a common enterprise, tied to one another by a common bond.
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.
If there is any question about whether or not we have, as a nation, overemphasized high stakes standardized testing, and if there is any question that this overemphasis has taken so much of the excitement out of teaching and learning for so many people across the country, I would like to open my remarks with some excerpts from an article in the Baton Rouge Advocate earlier this year. As many of you know, Louisiana is in the process of implementing high stakes tests for promotion. This article addresses how schools and students near Baton Rouge are dealing with the preparation and stress of the pending LEAP test. The test, which lasts five days, will determine, among other things, whether students will be promoted and whether schools will be sanctioned for poor performance.
The article describes one teacher who said, “I'm thinking about letting us have a scream day sometime in March, when we just go outside and scream,” and it continues, "her principal . . .is keenly aware of the stress on both students and teachers. He told teachers during a meeting . . . that he expects some students to throw up during the test. He's arranged to have all of the school's janitors on duty to clean up any messes."
It is no wonder that students are stressed. According to the article, "For the past eight weeks, Northwestern's school billboard has been updated daily with the number of school days left until the test." When I read this story, I wonder why we cannot let children be children? Why do we impose this misplaced pressure on children as young as eight years old? When I see what is happening around the country, with more and more states and districts adopting the harsh agenda of high stakes testing policies, I am struck by Bob Chase's comparison of all of these educational trends to the movie, Field of Dreams. In my view, it is as though people are saying, "If we test them, they will perform." In too many places, testing, which is a critical part of systemic educational accountability, has ceased its purpose of measuring educational and school improvement and has become synonymous with it.
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. It is ironic, because standardized tests evolved historically as one way to ensure more equal opportunity in education. They are supposed to be an instrument of fairness because they are graded objectively and allow any person, regardless of background, to demonstrate their skill.
When used correctly, standardized tests are critical for diagnosing inequality and for identifying where we need improvement. They enable us to measure achievement across groups of students so that we can help ensure that states and districts are held accountable for improving the achievement of all students regardless of race, income, gender, limited English proficiency and disability. However, they are not a panacea. 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.
So many of you here today have devoted your lives to public education. I do not need to explain to any of you the absurdity of the suggestion that students who attend the poorest schools have anywhere close to the same preparation and readiness as students who attend the wealthiest schools. People talk about using tests to motivate students to do well and using tests to ensure that we close the achievement gap.
This kind of talk is backwards and unfair. We cannot close the achievement gap until we close the gap in investment between poor and rich schools no matter how "motivated" some students are. We know what these key investments are: quality teaching, parental involvement, and early childhood education, to name just a few. 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.
All of us in politics like to get our picture taken with children. We never miss a "photo op." We all like to say that 'children are our future.' We are all for children until it comes time to make the investment. Too often, despite the talk, when it comes to making the investment in the lives of our children, we come up a dollar short.
Noted civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer used to say, "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired." Well I'm sick and tired of symbolic politics. When we say we are for children, we ought to be committed to invest in the health, skills and intellect of our children. We are not going to achieve our goals on a tin cup budget. Unless we make a real commitment, unless we put our
If one does not believe that failure on tests has to do with this crushing lack of opportunity, look at who is failing. In Minnesota, in the first round of testing, 79% of low-income students failed the reading portion of the high school exit exam and 74% failed the math part. These numbers have improved with repeated rounds of testing, but it is clear who is losing out in public education-those with the least opportunity. This pattern extends nationwide. In Massachusetts, African American and Latino students are failing tests at twice the rate of whites. In Texas, the gap between blacks and Latinos and whites is three times. It is unconscionable.
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. The 1999 National Research Council report, High Stakes, concludes that "no single test score can be considered a definitive measure of a student's knowledge," and that "an educational decision that will have a major impact on a test taker should not be made solely or automatically on the basis of a single test score."
The Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing, 1999 Edition, which has served as the standard for test developers and users for decades, asserts that: "In educational settings, a decision or a characterization that will have a major impact on a student should not be made on the basis of a single test score."
Even test publishers, including Harcourt Brace, CTB McGraw Hill, Riverside and ETS, consistently warn against this practice. For example, Riverside Publishing asserts in The Interpretive Guide for School administrators for the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, "Many of the common misuses (of standardized tests) stem from depending on a single test score to make a decision about a student or class of students."
CTB McGraw Hill writes that "A variety of tests, or multiple measures, is necessary to tell educators what students know and can do . . .the multiple measures approach to assessment is the keystone to valid, reliable, fair information about student achievement."
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 project 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 bad effects of retention in grade have been clearly established in science. You all know the data better than I do. Study after study shows that retention leads to poorer academic performance, higher dropout rates, increased behavioral problems, low self-esteem and higher rates of criminal activity and suicide. Research on high school dropouts indicates that students who do not graduate are more likely to be unemployed or hold positions with little or no career advancement, earn lower wages and be on public assistance.
On a more immediate level, people from New York will remember how 8,600 students were mistakenly held in summer school because their tests were graded incorrectly. When we talk about responsibility, what could be more irresponsible than using an invalid or unreliable measure as the sole determinant of something so important as high school graduation or in-school promotion?
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. Again, research proves this point. 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.
For example, in Chicago, the Consortium on Chicago School Research concluded that "Chicago's regular year and summer school curricula were so closely geared to the Iowa test that it was impossible to distinguish real subject matter mastery from mastery of skills and knowledge useful for passing this particular test." These findings are backed up by a recent poll in Texas which showed that only 27% of teachers in Texas felt that increased test scores reflected increased learning and higher quality teaching. 85% of teachers said that they neglected subjects not covered by the TAAS exam.
Stories are emerging from around the country about schools where teachers and students are under such pressure to perform that schools actually use limited funds to pay private companies to coach students and teachers in test taking strategies. According to the San Jose Mercury News, schools in East Palo Alto, which is one of the poorest districts in California, paid Stanley Kaplan $10,000 each to consult with them on test taking strategies. According to the same article, "schools across California are spending thousands to buy computer programs, hire consultants, and purchase workbooks and materials. They're redesigning spelling tests and math lessons, all in an effort to help students become better test takers." The teacher from Baton Rouge I mentioned before had even bought blank score sheets with bubbles on them so students can practice filling in circles.
The richness and exploration we want our own children to experience is being sucked out of our schools. I was moved by an op-ed I read recently in the New York Times, written by a fifth grade teacher who obviously had a great passion for his work. He said, "But as I teach from day to day … I no longer see the students in the way I once did-certainly not in the same exuberant light as when I first started teaching five years ago. Where once they were 'challenging' or 'marginal' students, I am now beginning to see 'liabilities.' Where once there was a student of 'limited promise,' there is now an inescapable deficit that all available efforts will only nominally affect." Children are measured by their score, not their potential, not their diverse talents, not the depth of their knowledge and not their character.
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.
The battle has already begun. Last month, two Senators, a Democrat and a Republican, introduced an amendment that would have mandated an "end to social promotion" in a clumsy and grossly unfair way. In response, I introduced an amendment that would have modified their amendment by saying that the provisions of their amendment would not apply to any child who had not had proper early childhood education, had not had the access to Title I, special ed and bilingual education which they deserved, and had not been taught by a fully qualified teacher.
The debate here was quite instructive. One of the Senators said that the fully qualified teacher requirement was a "deal-breaker" because in that Senator's state, there were far too many uncertified, under-qualified teachers and that to require that a child be taught by a qualified teacher before they could be retained would "gut the amendment" and make it impossible to end social promotion.
Well, no one could have made my point better. That amendment, and this system of high stakes tests, puts the cart before the horse. It gets the sequence backwards. It loses sight of our fundamental objective-to provide children with the tools they need to achieve, to think critically and to understand deeply the material they need to master to pass such tests. We cannot get away with making children pay for our failure to provide them with the high quality education they need, deserve and is their right.
You will not be surprised that in this case truth, beauty and justice did not prevail, and my amendment failed. But, we were able to fight and defeat the underlying amendment to end social promotion, which everyone thought would pass. It was a small victory, but I tell you the story to give you some context and to give you as sense of the uphill battle that we face.
As a United States Senator, I am absolutely committed to the fight to stop the abuse of high stakes tests. When the Elementary and Secondary Education Act Reauthorization comes to the floor of the Senate, I will introduce an amendment that will require that states and districts use multiple measures of student performance in addition to standardized tests if they are going to use tests as part of a high stakes decision. The amendment will also require that if tests are used, they must be valid and reliable for the purposes for which they are used; must measure what the student was taught; and must provide appropriate accommodations for students with limited English proficiency and disabilities.
I will also continue to take every opportunity, on the Senate floor and elsewhere, to fight to ensure that these high stakes tests are not used unless children are given the tools to learn the material they are being asked to master. In the current climate, with too many policy makers confusing accountability with high-stakes testing, we confront a huge task to get these ideas enacted into law. If they are not enacted, I will at least demand that we get an independent, thorough study of the impact of high stakes tests on children and on education.
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, 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.
This fight we confront today is not just a fight about tests, or just about ensuring that all our children are educated and educated well. It is time for us to renew our national vow of equal opportunity for every child in America. That's what this fight is all about.
That reminds me of a quote that has motivated me throughout my life. It is my favorite quote. It is from Wendell Phillips, an abolitionist from the 1840's. At that time both political parties were very weary of the slavery issue and they weren't sure how to confront it. But not Wendell, he just said slavery was a moral outrage, that it was unconscionable, and he wouldn't equivocate. He wasn't afraid to speak out.
After he gave a particularly fiery speech about abolition, a friend came up to him and said, "Wendell, why are you so on fire?"
And Wendell turned to his friend and said, "Brother May, I'm on fire because I have mountains of ice before me to melt."
We have mountains of ice before us to melt. Thank you for your energy, your time, your love for children and your passion to do what is right. It has been an honor to be here.