March 13 — 12:00 am, 2003

High stakes tests: a harsh agenda for America’s children

The following remarks are excerpts from a speech by the late U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone (MN), at Teachers College, Columbia University, March 31, 2000. Senator Wellstone died tragically in a plane crash on October 25, 2002.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

Even test publishers, including Harcourt Brace, CTB McGraw Hill, Riverside and ETS, consistently warn against this practice.

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.

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. The richness and exploration we want our own children to experience is being sucked out of our schools.

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.

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.

The full text of this speech is available on the website of the Alternative Education Resource Organization (

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