Sec. Paige vs. Sen. Wellstone: Testing, Accountability, and Prophetic Pronouncements

Happy Fathers Day!!

Now that the discussion of whether NCLB would actually close “achievement gaps” by 2014 is nearly in our rear view mirror (it is not going to happen, not even close— it is going to take 80 more years based on recent NAEP research, NCLB actually slowed our progress) let’s take a look at the discourse by proponents and opponents of high-stakes testing and accountability contemporary to the passage of NCLB. Early on Senator Paul Wellstone was a critic and Secretary Rod Paige a proponent of the high-stakes testing and accountability approach to education.

Who was an education prophet? Who should we have believed? Paul Wellstone or Rod Paige?

The English word prophet comes from the Greek word προφήτης (profétés) meaning advocate.  The appellation of prophet has been used to refer to individuals particularly successful at predicting the future (Wikipedia).

Beware of false prophets… Ye shall know them by their fruits. Matthew 7:15,16

Beloved, believe not every spirit… because many false prophets are gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1)

For there shall arise…false prophets…insomuch that if were possible, they shall deceive the very elect. (Matthew 24:24)

First, Secretary Paige:

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Excerpts from the prepared text delivered at American Enterprise Institute, January 7, 2004, by Secretary Rod Paige


I give the President much credit for seeing this problem and willingly making it an issue in the last national election. He said that, if elected, he would institute change, and he did. Within four days of assuming office, he initiated a blueprint that became The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. This was an act that was passed with wide bi-partisan support. The President immediately signed it and it became the law of the land. It is two years old this week.

With this law – this tool — we are beginning to redress this achievement gap. This law is radical surgery, massive reform. The “old ways” will no longer be tolerated. We demand equity, justice, and inclusion. The name is a constant reminder: no child left behind.

For the first time in the history of our nation, every state in our nation has an accountability plan that holds all schools and all students in their state to the same high standards. For the first time, parents and teachers will be able to work together to make sure no child is left behind. Every child counts.

No Child Left Behind is a tough law. But it’s a good law. It focuses attention on the children who most need our help, but it benefits all children. Thanks to No Child Left Behind, I’m proud to report that all across the country, communities are empowered with the information they need to take action.

• This fall, parents received information about how well their school is performing, and about their teacher’s qualifications.

• Schools and teachers now have detailed information about their students’ achievement so that they can adapt their lessons and better serve ALL their students.

• And parents of students attending high-need schools received letters telling them they have options if their child’s school hasn’t made sufficient progress over the last couple years.

• And there is more federal funding for education at all levels to get the law implemented. The highest federal support in history. For example, Earl Hansen Elementary School in Rock Island, Illinois shows what can be done. More than 70 percent of the students come from low-income families. In fact, the number of students from low-income families rose from 58 percent in 2001 to 71 percent in 2003. Students from low-income families face significant barriers to achievement. But during the same time, test scores rose. The school was chosen as a “Spotlight School” in Illinois, which reflects the fact that test scores were high and that the provisions of No Child Left Behind were met. One commentator has said that the success of this school is because “they expect every child to excel and they find ways to make that happen.” This is No Child Left Behind in action. And this example is being duplicated around the country.

[2013 update: Earl Hanson elementary is 4 years under school improvement, has the lowest Illinois accountability rating, has not made AYP and has lower test scores than prior to NCLB passage.]


No Child Left Behind is a powerful, sweeping law. It is the logical step after Brown v. Board of Education ended segregation, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act promised an equitable society. The Ancient Greeks used to say, “Education is freedom.” Yes, it is. And No Child Left Behind is about freedom and equality and justice. It is about the way we learn about life; it is about life itself. Because of the powerful sweep of this change, this revolution, there are some who resist. That is to be expected. The resistance to Brown was “massive” and sustained over generations. Those who fought against Brown were on the wrong side of history, just as those who fight No Child Left Behind will one day also be labeled. We have come to expect strident resistance to any major changes in education, particularly if they change the status quo and challenge the educational establishment that seeks to protect itself. Thankfully, some school districts and principals have been willing partners. I am thankful for their patience and their persistence as we fully implement the law. There are going to be some snags, but they understand the process and the need for reform. For those school districts, we are in pretty good shape. There are some who think that African American children can’t learn as well as white children, or that Hispanic American children are slow learners, or that special needs children should be held back, or that children from other countries can’t adapt quickly, or that poor children are poor students. Such attitudes become self-fulfilling. These children can learn. All children can learn, if we give them the opportunity, the attention, the time, and the resources to learn. That’s what this is all about: helping all children to learn. That is something that teachers, parents, clergy, education advocates, civil rights leaders, government officials, business people, and everyone should want and should demand.

I find it staggering that the very critics and organizations that fought so hard for civil rights could leave our African American, Hispanic American, and special needs children behind. Some of the very people and organizations that applauded Brown and worked to implement it are now opposing No Child Left Behind: unions, teachers, civil libertarians, liberal politicians, and education advocates. Why? Because it exposes their special interests. Their opposition is about power, politics, and pride, not the best interests of our children. If those who fear change defeat national reform, then division, exclusion, racism, and callousness wins. This is a debate with profound and lasting consequences. If we lose this debate, millions of children will be harmed by being excluded, ignored, disrespected, and under-educated, and then sent out into a world for which they are educationally unprepared and uncompetitive. Who among us would wish that on any child? On your own child?


No Child Left Behind is an aggressive, rapid action to eliminate latent segregation and close the achievement gap. There are some who believe that enforcement of current civil rights laws is enough. I would disagree. If this country firmly is committed to a future where racism is eradicated, then we must recognize that Brown itself was just a start, and that affirmative action is only transitionary. At some point we must eliminate disparities directly. The No Child Left Behind effort does that. It demands that each child is respected, educated, and honored. It does not allow entire classes of children to be undereducated or ignored. We are committed to all children, not averages, classes, groups, types, or categories. We are pledged to educate all children…all children. At a speech last fall in Washington, two children came forward and thanked me for helping them. It seems that they were special needs children, and their school programs became even more inclusive thanks to No Child Left Behind. So they were receiving a fine education, and just wanted me to know.

In the end, it’s that simple. Those children are the reason we must forge ahead and make education inclusive of all children. We must be mindful that educational opportunity must exist for all children, and that racism cannot end as long as there is an achievement gap.

Now, for comparison, Senator Paul Wellstone:

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Excerpts from the prepared text delivered at Teachers College, Columbia University, March 31, 2000, to the conference on high stakes testing by U.S. Senator Paul D. Wellstone

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 to which I do not need to call your attention: 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.

Allowing the continued misuse of high-stakes tests is, in itself, a gross failure of moral imagination, a failure both of educators and of policymakers, who persistently refuse to provide the educational resources necessary to guarantee an equal opportunity to learn for all our children.

That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children, including poor children, is a national disgrace…

Today I want to speak out boldly against this trend towards high-stakes testing. It is a harsh agenda that holds children responsible for our own failure to invest in their future and in their achievement. I speak out because education has consumed my adult life and education is my passion. I speak out because I was an educator for twenty years before I became a Senator. I speak out because as a Senator, I have been in a school almost every two weeks for the past ten years and I have seen, as you have, the inequality so many children confront. I also have seen how much difference a good school and a good teacher can make for a child. It is based on this experience and on what I have seen and heard about the abuse of high stakes tests by many states and school districts across the country, that I speak out today…

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…

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.

First and foremost, I firmly believe that it is grossly unfair to not graduate, or to hold back a student based on a standardized test if that student has not had the opportunity to learn the material covered on the test. When we impose high- stakes tests on an educational system where there are, as Jonathan Kozol says, savage inequalities, and then we do nothing to address the underlying causes of those inequalities, we set up children to fail…

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…

But 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…

[Here Sen. Wellstone diverged from his prepared remarks to talk about how, as a student with learning disabilities, he did not do well on tests. At one point, nearing completion of his undergraduate work in political science at the University of North Carolina, he applied to the UNC graduate school. He was denied entrance due to low test scores. He then conducted a one-person sit-in until he could meet with the Dean. Wellstone argued that his record of nearly all A’s in political science was surely better evidence that he could succeed in the graduate department than was the test score. He was admitted and earned his Ph.D.]

Politicians and policy makers who continue to push for high- stakes tests and educators who continue to use them in the face of this knowledge have closed their eyes to clearly set professional and scientific standards. They demand responsibility and high standards of students and schools while they let themselves get away with defying the most basic standards of the education profession.

It would be irresponsible if a parent or a teacher used a manufactured product on children in a way that the manufacturer says is unsafe. Why do we then honor and declare “accountable” policy makers and politicians who use tests on children in a way that the test manufacturers have said is effectively unsafe?

There is no doubt that when mistakes are made, the consequences are devastating… 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…

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… 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…

Gunnar Myrdal said that ignorance is never random. If we do not know the impact of high-stakes tests, we can continue as we are now–sounding good while doing bad. High-stakes tests are part of an agenda that has been sweeping the nation. People use words like ‘accountability’ and ‘responsibility’ when they talk about high-stakes tests, but what they are being is anything but accountable or responsible. They do not see beyond their words to the harsh reality that underlies them and the harsh agenda that they are imposing on teachers, parents and most of all students.

For  more context, see all of Cloaking Inequity’s posts on high-stakes testing and accountability.

Behold, I am against them that prophesy false dreams… and cause my people to err by their lies… Jeremiah 23:32

Who was right about high-stakes testing and accountability? Senator Wellstone or Secretary Rod Paige? Considering the accuracy of their predictions, who was a false prophet? Whose course should we choose for America’s future?

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Twitter: @ProfessorJVH


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  • At the time of this comment, 18.75% of people have been either living with their head in the sand or with their hand in their wallet this last decade.


  • Monty J. Thornburg, Ph.D.

    There’s so much that could be written about here. I’m going to focus on Senator Wellstone’s comment about “Moral imagination” being thwarted by NCLB. In 1986 I completed a thesis on “Parental Choice in Education” and included some philosophical quotes from Garcia, J.D. (1971) “The Moral Society: A Rational Alternative to Death.” Garcia went on to continue refining his philosophy and before his death he completed the (2001) book: “The Ethical State.” At the graduation for my high school graduates this June 2013, I paraphrased a concept developed by Garcia. The essence of my remarks were about my view of those graduates “ethical behavior” and their genuine acceptance of others with disabilities and my appreciation of them because they “ethically” cared for, responded to, and treated others well. For that reason, I explained, it is my belief that they will succeed in a world where grades and artificial meritocracy are not the only indicators of individual potential. One of Garcia’s philosophical concepts, his philosophy is that: “High intelligence with low (negative) ethics leads to destruction.” Garcia further wrote, “It is more important to maximize ethics than intelligence, if we must choose solely one of these attributes. It is suicidal to increase intelligence without increasing ethics, or to increase the intelligence of persons who have negative ethics.” Dr. J. Vasquez H. has demonstrated through his research, the systemic consequences of a bureaucratic system’s destructiveness for some students. For example, systems that lead to inappropriate placement into Alternative Education to boost aggregate test, AYP scores. Senator Wellstone talked about the loss of “Moral Imagination” in his speech and that triggered my thoughts on Garcia. Garcia also wrote: “No government can do good, outside of protecting basic human rights, for anyone without in the process imposing undeserved harm on someone.” He also wrote that: “In the United States, and almost all other countries, the concept of “democracy” has been corrupted to mean “majority rule.” “Democracy” means “the rule of the people,” not “majority rule.” The notion of, “democracy” means “self-government.” … By “democracy” I mean solely “self-government” without any form of tyranny, without anarchy, and without bureaucracy. Clearly, a massive bureaucracy has emerged across the U.S. with NCLB.


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