Taking on High-Stakes Testing

Harriet Brown
May 4, 2001


Updated: 2009

On a brisk day in February 1999, Meredith Scrivner and Connie Gavin were on their way to Madison, Wisconsin, for a public hearing. The state legislature was considering a measure to require students to pass a single standardized test for promotion to certain grades and high school graduation. The two women from Whitefish Bay were going to testify against the measure. "We expected to go and have everyone supporting the law," says Scrivner. "We expected to be two schlumpy little moms, spitting in the wind."

They were surprised when the hearing room was packed and astounded when person after person stood up and spoke against the measure. Then the head of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction stood up. "I will hear it till I die," recalls Scrivner with a grin. "The guy opens his mouth and says, 'You cannot legitimately make major decisions in the life of a child based on one test.' Connie and I nearly fell on the floor."

Already Organized
Five years earlier, the two women—best friends since meeting at the kindergarten door—had co-founded Advocates for Education (AFE), a Milwaukee-area public education advocacy group. The original vision belonged to Scrivner, a nurse with a background in community activism. Her idea was to encourage ordinary folks to become savvy, knowledgeable advocates for the public schools. "If you're passionate about something, affecting the public policy process is crucial," she explains.

AFE was born after the Whitefish Bay school district failed to win passage of a referendum for funds to renovate and expand its overcrowded middle school in 1994. Most families in this predominantly white Milwaukee suburb are middle- to upper middle- class, and Scrivner and Gavin thought the referendum would pass easily. They were wrong. "It was a spring break election," says Scrivner. "Everyone thought everyone else had voted, and it was soundly defeated."

She and Gavin saw an opportunity. AFE's first meeting took place on a muggy August night in someone's living room. By January AFE had incorporated, drawn up operating agreements and a mission statement, enrolled 700 members, and persuaded the local school board to bring back the referendum. Then the real work began. "We ran an old-fashioned campaign," says Scrivner. "We had block captains and neighborhood captains. We canvassed every street and kept track of what people said. We made a video of the school and its needs and showed it at coffee get-togethers." When the votes were tallied that April, the referendum had passed by 80 votes. And, says Gavin, "The community was truly empowered in the process."

But passage of the referendum didn't mean the end of AFE. Members continued to be involved in public-education advocacy, studying emerging educational issues before taking a stand on them. One of the issues in the mid-90s was standards and assessment. "We went into it thinking, what could be bad about standards and assessments?" says Scrivner. "We never expected to find something we were going to have to fight. But the more we learned, the more concerned we became." Their concerns intensified when the Wisconsin State Legislature—like other state legislatures—took up a high-stakes testing bill.

A Critical Look at High-Stakes Tests
Proponents of high-stakes tests point to the widespread practice of social promotion—passing kids up the grades whether they've mastered skills or not—and say the tests are needed to make sure children are really being educated. Critics point out many serious flaws both in the tests and in the way they're used; for instance, the single most reliable correlation with standardized test scores is socioeconomic status.

"No one test can properly measure the vast diversity of kids, curriculum, content, and ability," says Scrivner. "And a test like this, over time, has tremendous power in driving the curriculum of a school district."

AFE created a Community Advocacy packet that included position papers, a sample letter, and mailing labels pre-addressed to key state legislators. When the high-stakes measure passed the senate and assembly education committees, the group swung into what Scrivner jokingly calls the Amway approach to advocacy. "We sent out e-mail alerts to people, and many would then have ten more people they sent it to," she says. "When we knew there would be a key vote, we got the network to flood those legislators' offices."

Ultimately, the legislature passed an amended measure that gives local school districts the leeway to weigh other factors (including grades and teacher recommendations) in determining promotion and graduation. Scrivner and Gavin think this is a good start.

Next Steps
But, insists Gavin, a start is all it is. "We're not done," she says. "We didn't solve the problem of the tests driving curriculum and causing districts to teach to the tests, and there are still fundamental problems around special ed." So AFE will continue to educate and organize the greater Milwaukee community. "Many people are willing to speak up and want to, but don't know how," explains Scrivner. "What we do is inform people about issues and about the advocacy process in the hope that they will then go out and be effective advocates."

For more information, visit the AFE web site at www.advocatesforeducation.org. For tips on organizing a similar group in your community, contact Connie Gavin at ckgavin@execpc.com or Meredith Scrivner at scrivner@aero.net.

Harriet Brown is a freelance writer in Madison, Wisconsin, and the author of The Good-bye Window: A Year in the Life of a Day-Care Center (University of Wisconsin Press, 1998).