Senator Paul D. Wellstone (MN), at Teachers College,
Columbia University, March
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.