Badger-State Parent Power

Wisconsin parents are organizing against the state's 'no social promotions' tests. Politicians are taking notice.

By Linds McCants Pendleton

Arlie Davel, the mother of five in a small school district about 30 miles north of Milwaukee, doesn’t like Wisconsin’s “two strikes and you’re out” testing law. As a result of her organizing and that of other parents throughout the state, she may be successful in blunting a high-stakes, “no social promotion” testing law.

Under a law passed last year, in the 2002-03 school year Wisconsin will prohibit school districts from passing children on to the next grade if they twice fail even one part of the five-part Wisconsin Student Assessment (WSAS) test. The test covers English/language arts (reading and writing in the younger grades), math, social studies, and science. Twelfth graders will be required to pass a series of even-more rigorous tests for graduation.

Parents from cities such as La Crosse, West Bend, and Madison have also spoken out against the law. One of the most influential groups is based in Whitefish Bay, an affluent Milwaukee suburb.

State legislators have acknowledged the power of the parents’ protests. The chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Sen. Richard Grobschmidt (D-Milwaukee area), head of the Senate Education Committee, has said that there will likely be changes to the law, thanks “almost exclusively” to parents’ protests.

Davel started organizing against the law because she knew firsthand how it could harm children. Take the case of her daughter, Laura. When in fourth grade, Laura had twice failed the math section of the WSAS. If the “no social promotion” law had been in effect, she would have flunked. Luckily, Laura was not punished but instead received help from her teachers.

“We think we’re ending social promotions, but we could end up opening a can of worms,” says Davel, who lives in the Port Washington-Saukville School District. “There’s no wiggle room in the new law. Two strikes in any one section and the kid is held back.”

Davel teamed up with another parent Jean Boothby to inform parents about the law. They are also testifying before their school board and contacting state legislators. “The tests should build these kids up, not label them or place the burden on their shoulders,” says Boothby. “A timed test will never assess my child’s abilities.”

The Current Law

The testing law applies to all students attending public and charter schools in Wisconsin. Children attending private schools, even private schools in Milwaukee receiving publicly funded vouchers, are exempt. There is only one way school districts will be able to get around the law: by developing their own comparable tests. The Milwaukee Public Schools have done so in math and writing for high school, for example, with a more comprehensive proficiency package in the works. But few other districts have the resources to do so.

Connie Gavin, a member of the Whitefish Bay group Advocates for Education, said their group, has made organizing against the high-stakes test their top priority. The group formed study groups on the issue, collected information, talked to school administrators, contacted lawmakers, attended legislative hearings, and wrote articles.

Meredith Scrivner, another member of the group, said the issue “boils down to local control.” Accountability “should stay as close to the child as possible — the parent, the teacher, the principal, the school board.” Scrivner also fears that districts will narrow their curriculum and begin “teaching to the test.”

To date, there has not been extensive organizing in Milwaukee around the tests, in part because of a plethora of other issues facing the district and in part because the state’s most powerful legislators, in particular Republicans from suburban districts, have tended to ignore the concerns of Milwaukee parents.

Tammy Johnson, head of the Wisconsin Action Coalition Education Task Group, notes that it is imperative that Milwaukee parents be included in the dialogue and decision-making about standardized testing and other education issues. “It’s not reality to talk about education [reform] in a vacuum in the suburbs,” said Johnson. “But people don’t do things unless it addresses a self-interest.”

Opting Out

How much the state legislature will modify the high-stakes law is still unclear. Under current law, parents may “opt out” their children if they agree to alternate assessment or criteria developed by the district. Gov. Tommy Thompson, however, has proposed eliminating the “opt-out” provision for the high school graduation tests.

Rep. Sheldon Wasserman (D-Milwaukee area) said that he will continue to consult with parents, educators, and fellow legislators in hopes of finding a way to return more control over graduation and promotion requirements to local levels.

Rep. Luther S. Olson (R-Berlin), head of the Assembly Education Committee, credited the parent organizing with alerting legislators to problems with the high-stakes law. “They reminded us that we’re dealing with flesh-and-blood human beings and not factory parts,” Olsen told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Linda McCants Pendleton is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer.