Early Tests Challenged

Legislation to ban K-2 testing receives first hearing

By Bob Peterson

In the children’s book, First Grade Takes A Test by Maria Coleman, six year olds are given a standardized test with devastating results. While one student excels and is tracked into a gifted and talented class, the rest accuse each other and themselves of failing and of being “dummies.”

Increasingly, this has become all too real. Especially distressing is the damaging and unjust impact such tests have on low income children and children of color. Often standardized tests cause these students to be channeled into lower tracks and remedial classes where they get less attention, less stimulating material and become convinced they can’t learn.

The Wisconsin Assembly Education Committee heard a critique of standardized testing and a reading of this first grade story at a public hearing on Assembly Bill 542 which would ban standardized testing in kindergarten through second grade (K-2) in Wisconsin.

The bill, sponsored by Assemblyperson Louis Fortis and cosponsored by 13 other state legislators, would ban K-2 standardized tests in Wisconsin. It also calls on the Department of Public Instruction to develop and make available to school districts “developmentally appropriate individual assessment instruments.”

As standardized testing has come under sharp criticism in recent years, some states are banning such tests in the early grades. (See Rethinking Schools, Vol. 3 No. 2.) Prominent educational organizations such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the International Reading Association, and the American Federation of Teachers have raised grave concerns about this nation’s testing policy for young children.

The public hearing was the first round of what promises to be a lengthy process in which the pros and cons of testing young children will be debated in the state. Assemblyperson Fortis introduced the legislation at the urging of child advocates, parents and teachers who recognize the dangers inherent in subjecting young children to such tests.


Representative Fortis called such tests “unreliable” noting that the results of two identical tests given to the same young children only a few days apart might vary by 50%. He stated that school systems were “taking this unreliable information and making important decisions” with it, such as channeling students into remedial or gifted classes. “Had Einstein been subjected to such damaging tests,” Fortis said, “he would have been tracked in remedial classes and might never have blossomed into the genius he became.”

Angie Wegner, a kindergarten teacher from Milwaukee testified, “If you want to see what a school system values, look at what they test.” She said many people claim that in schools children are “learning to think, learning to learn, and learning to create.” She commented, “I am afraid those lofty goals won’t be realized as long as teachers have the world of standardized testing hanging over their heads.”

She pointed out that teachers are forced to spend their precious teaching time and energy teaching or training children to take tests because of the value some sectors of society place on these questionable indicators. Because the kinds of questions asked on standardized tests measure lower level thinking skills that have one right answer, much school curriculum becomes oriented in this direction.

Doug Vance, representing the Wisconsin Reading Association, testified that his organization has concluded after study that, “Group standardized achievement tests are inappropriate for kindergarten and first grade students.” He stated that the Wisconsin State Reading Association holds that “reading assessment must reflect advances in understanding the reading research, [but that] standardized tests don’t reflect the reading process as we know it.” He explained that instead of “authentic text read for genuine purposes” standardized tests “have shorter passages, little bits and snippets, and then ask for conclusions to be made.” He praised the newly developed DPI 3rd grade reading test as a more appropriate form of assessment because it has longer passages and attempts to measure background knowledge and attitudes toward reading. He also pointed out that “there are already alternatives to the use of standardized tests for making decisions about individual students including individualized reading assessments and class observations.”

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction has developed extensive materials to be used as alternative assessments for young children. In Milwaukee and in Madison committees of teachers have been working this past year to develop similar types of instruments.

Mary Ann Padol, a primary teacher from Victory School in Milwaukee, pointed out that standardized tests “do not produce any results that I or other teachers can utilize to improve instruction.” Instead, she charged, they force “ teachers and school systems to narrow their curriculum, and encourage children to become convergent thinkers.” Padol spoke of the inappropriateness of such tests at this early age. She said such young children when taking a test “just don’t understand what they are doing…Many feel threatened or dumb because they don’t know the answers .. while creative thinkers choose a variety of non-conventional answers.”

Other speakers from Milwaukee and Madison pointed out that because such tests are language based, they are highly biased culturally and linguistically. The most significant determining factor in the success on such tests is the socioeconomic background of the child. Individual test items, the manner in which the tests are normed, and the language used in the actual test have all been shown to discriminate against children of color and low income students.

The Milwaukee Board of School Directors and the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association have both gone on record as being in favor of the legislation banning K-2 tests.

Arguments Against the Bill

The Wisconsin Association of School Boards and the Wisconsin Education Association Committee opposed the bill. The latter registered against the bill but did not speak, while the former raised questions about the definition of testing in the bill and the issue of whether the state or local school districts should decide. A WEAC spokesperson also said that the local control issue was their main concern.

Apparently the perspective of the WEAC and the WASB was influential on the committee, as Chairperson Potter repeatedly asked proponents of the bill how they could justify the state legislature mandating such a bill. How could “non-educators (state legislators) mandate a ban on standardized tests?” he asked.

Several speakers responded noting the legislature in the past has never hesitated to impose such testing requirements, as it has done in the P-5 legislation, which gives money to inner city Wisconsin schools but also mandates a hefty load of tests for all the students attending those schools. Speakers also noted that on some issues — such as corporal punishment — the matter is so serious that state intervention is warranted. “While this is not corporal punishment,” one Milwaukee teacher testified, “the subjection of young children to group standardized testing is systematic mental punishment which should be banned.”

An assemblyperson raised the question, “How would you identify a child for exceptional education?” if such a law passes. Several speakers responded to the concern about exceptional education placement by recommending that the bill be amended to ban “group administered standardized tests” so that individual tests for diagnostic purposes would still be permitted. It was also noted that in Wisconsin referrals to exceptional education programs must include not only standardized tests scores, but also a variety of evaluations.

Even with the proposed amendment, however, there is a danger that “individually” administered standardized tests could still be utilized with damaging results to young children. There is no guarantee that just because some “instrument” is administered on a one-to-one basis, that there would be an absence of bias or an increase in reliability.

The Financial Crunch

The Department of Public Instruction, while not openly opposing the legislation, helped develop the bill’s fiscal statement. If left to stand, this will certainly be the death knell of the bill.

The fiscal note that was attached to the bill was developed by officials at the DPI and included the final price tag of over $4 million. Mr. Arnold Chandler, speaking for the DPI, called the fiscal estimate “low,” stating that “there is a need for a very serious training program for teachers who are expected to implement and utilize these instruments.”

Fortis responded that he “was appalled” with the note and that he “assumes that they [the DPI] misread the bill.” He noted that the bill called for the DPI to “develop and make available” alternative assessment instruments, not for them to train all 7077 K-2 teachers in their use. One teacher cynically noted after the hearing that despite all the new curriculum requirements routinely forced upon classroom teachers by the state and the DPI, this was the first time he could remember that the DPI saw fit to include a comprehensive inservice component. “No one explained why we are not capable of administering developmentally appropriate assessments. A good teacher teaches in developmentally appropriate ways every day!”

Other parts of the estimated cost included nearly a quarter of a million dollars for the hiring of four new consultants to develop the instruments, $25,000 for the development of a video on them, and $49,000 for the printing of a handbook on such instruments. An official in the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction told Rethinking Schools that their expenses after the passage of similar legislation in North Carolina were less than $150,000 and that they had not hired new people, but rather used people already employed by the State Department of Public Instruction.

Monty Neil, a representative of the Cambridge based National Center for Fair and Open Testing, said in a telephone interview with Rethinking Schools that proponents of similar legislation in the state of New York are planning on mandating the Department of Public Instruction to establish a library containing alternative forms of assessment that are developmentally appropriate so as to circumvent any such large expenses. Apparently, Representative Fortis is considering amending his legislation in a similar fashion.

Wegner alluded to this possibility when she concluded her presentation by stating, “There are movements in classrooms and schools throughout this country — as well as in Australia, Canada and Britain — that have already done lots of research and work on alternative forms of assessment. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We just have to start using it.”

Fortis encouraged those people from around the state who support the bill to write or call their legislators to encourage the passage of this legislation.

Bob Peterson teaches at Fratney Street School.