How Wisconsin Parents Worked to Roll Back High Stakes Testing

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FairTest Examiner
Summer 1999, pp. 10-11

How Wisconsin Parents Worked to Roll Back High Stakes Testing

The following is a summary of an interview with Meredith Scrivner of Advocates for Education of Whitefish Bay, Inc., (AFE).

Growing out of a successful community organizing effort to pass a school finance referendum, AFE became active at the local and state level on several education policy issues. When Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson proposed and the legislature passed two measures over the past two years – one requiring a single state test for graduation and the other requiring all 4th and 8th graders to pass a test to be promoted in grade – the group began organizing around these issues.

In discussions, literature and public forums, AFE challenged Wisconsin’s new accountability measures and use of high-stakes tests for being based on three flawed premises: 1) raising the bar through testing will result in improved teaching and learning; 2) getting a higher score on a test represents educational success; and 3) retention will result in higher academic achievement. AFE particularly stressed that it is neither fair nor sensible for one paper-and-pencil test to determine whether every child should graduate or be promoted. High-stakes testing also will pressure schools to teach to the test instead of engaging students in meaningful exploration and learning, will take time away from learning, and will direct curriculum away from local priorities.

“While we wondered what the basis was for believing that all public schools in Wisconsin are failing, we especially rejected the notion that if you just shook a big enough stick, schools would somehow respond,” Scrivner explained. “We tried to show that this implied that problems were due to a lack of effort on the part of students or teachers rather than a myriad of factors that contribute to school achievement.”

The group conducted outreach by participating in five public forums in nearby communities and by distributing an advocacy tool kit explaining key issues and directing parents to take action (for copies of these materials see the FairTest website). Scrivner observed that getting local school board members to sign on was important, as these policy makers will “always have something helpful to say about the when, what and why’s of tests.”

The advocacy materials were distributed to a wide audience composed mainly of parents, through what Meredith jokingly described as the “Amway model” of grassroots advocacy, where every person agrees to tell two more, who tell two more, and so forth. “It worked,” she claimed, “but what we also found was that you had to try and provide every tool someone needs in order to do something.” Preaddressed mailing labels for letters to key legislators were one such “tool” that made the advocacy packet effective.

Scrivner commented that letters and direct calls to legislators were the best means of communicating with policy makers, despite the availability of E-mail. She added that “flooding” legislators’ E-mail boxes with letters in emergency situations did help.

Testimony of parents before legislative committees was also important in shaping legislators’ opinions, according to Scrivner, as officials often hear from lobbyists and administrators, but rarely from well informed parents speaking passionately about how policies affect their children.

While parents voiced a variety of concerns about which outcome of the high-stakes tests was most harmful, they generally wanted the tests eliminated: It was on this common ground that AFE organized and continues to campaign. Some communities were particularly concerned about their loss of control over curriculum content, while parents of students in vocational education programs rejected the notion that a test geared to pre-college students should determine graduation. Other parents saw using a single test of any sort to make promotion decisions as unfair. Together, these many concerns amounted to a successful “old fashioned” campaign that convinced enough legislators that the state’s high-stakes testing laws were unpopular with their constituents.

“We didn’t run a negative campaign, and we left our doors open to policy makers. And once parents came forward, we found that other stakeholders such as teachers and community members were more likely to speak up,” Scrivner explained. She summed up the campaign saying, “I think the most powerful thing we instigated was a powerful reminder that parents and grandparents are important stakeholders in the education policymaking process.”


Reprinted with permission from FairTest Examiner Summer 1999, pp. 10-11 — © Alfie Kohn

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