Wellstone on Testing

The following points are excerpted from a speech by the late Senator Paul Wellstone at a conference in New York City in the Spring of 2000 on high-stakes testing.

By Paul Wellstone

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: 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.

  • 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. 
  • 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. 
  • 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 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. 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. 
  • 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. 
  • The 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’s time for us to renew our national vow of equal opportunity for every child in America.