Saturday, August 04, 2007


'No Child Left Behind' should really be called 'No Test Left Behind.'
Review by Edward Humes in The LA Times Book Review of July 29, 2007

Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade
by Linda Perlstein | Henry Holt: 304 pp., $25

Pop quiz: You are the principal of an elementary school best known for its poor kids and poorer grades when, unexpectedly, your students' annual state assessment scores shoot through the roof, making you the newest darling of the No Child Left Behind era. Do you:

a) launch a school-wide celebration featuring a stirring rendition of "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now"?

b) immediately start drilling students for next year's tests?

c) panic at the likelihood that the next round of scores will plummet, turning you into a No Child Left Behind pariah?

If you're stumped, don't worry. I left out d) all of the above, which is the real answer at the real school chosen by journalist Linda Perlstein as the setting for her new book, "Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade." Her observations only confirm many of our worst fears about the direction U.S. education has taken under a federal edict that would have been more aptly named "No Test Left Behind."

The conceit of Perlstein's book is simple: to reveal up close the effects on one elementary school, and, by extension, all public schools, of the testing and accountability culture mandated by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, President Bush's signature education initiative.

Statistical studies of this law abound, but an examination of its human effects is long overdue. "Tested" succeeds in filling this void on several levels, providing descriptions that, for many readers, will seem a stunning indictment of No Child Left Behind and the state and local policies it has engendered. The endless regimen of testing, drilling, report filing, student bribing and student berating that Perlstein describes could only have been conceived by politicians and ideologues who rarely set foot in actual public schools (and would never subject their own children to the Frankenstein classrooms their policies have created).

Perlstein chose Tyler Heights Elementary School in suburban Annapolis, Md., a campus of mostly poor and minority students surrounded by schools with far more affluent and academically prepared student bodies. But unlike troubled inner-city schools, suburban Tyler has considerable financial resources at its disposal with which to close the "achievement gap."

She begins with the announcement in May 2005 that, after years of poor scoring, Tyler Heights has dramatically improved its performance on the Maryland School Assessment, the annual testing mandated by No Child Left Behind. These questions set up the drama of the following school year depicted in "Tested": Was this a fluke, and Tyler a one-hit wonder? Or did the scripted lessons and ruthless teaching-to-the-test payoff, a worthy model for other schools? Or had the state lowered the bar so far on its tests that even failing students appeared to shine? Finally, there is the question that most haunts Tyler's principal and teachers throughout the book: Can we do it again?

In charting the answers to those questions, Perlstein depicts a school obsessed not so much with educating as with measuring education, and with doling out a kind of pallid simulation of knowledge. Stories, for example, are always analyzed for their structure, almost never for their actual content. Creative writing is discouraged in favor of repetitive paragraphs called "Brief Constructed Responses," or BCRs -- an acronym Tyler kids hear endlessly.

"They're learning to do the formula," one teacher laments midway through the school year, "and forgetting how to think."

The goal, Perlstein shows, is to limit teaching to ideas, skills and knowledge that can fit inside the confines of a multiple choice test. Teachers must follow a strictly paced and worded script that even mandates what classroom posters can be hung. Students are similarly regimented: Creativity and spontaneity only get in the way of data collection. And so the author treats us to the awful moment when bright kindergartners identifying long vowel sounds are told to stop -- because rigid lesson plans say they are supposed to know only short vowel sounds.

Reading and math are paramount in Maryland's annual exams, so the constant test prep for those two subjects makes science, social studies and art vanish, leaving third-graders unable to identify the president or say whether Annapolis is a city or state. The school lavishes attention on troubled and unruly children, while the most gifted and cooperative are ignored, one of No Child Left Behind's most destructive unintended consequences. "Tested" depicts a system of constant rewards for poorly behaved students whose scores might be raised, but nothing for the kids already doing the work and passing or those who are so far behind they are deemed unlikely to pass no matter what.

Perlstein shows the human effect of these priorities. Kids who once devoured chapter books write BCRs about hating reading (and themselves). Tempers flare, teachers accuse kids of not wanting to be smart. The principal constantly doles out prizes -- candy, ice cream, field trips, massage sessions -- to students just for showing up and doing what is required. The result of this bribery is predictable: A third-grader balking at a lesson about using the dictionary asks, "But what do we win?"

Perlstein contrasts Tyler with a nearby school that has a mostly white and affluent student population. Tyler gets more financial resources, but the other school has advantages Tyler lacks: parental involvement, stability at home and kids who've been read to since infancy. At the neighboring school, the annual tests cause far less consternation; science and social studies are still taught; teachers are given more leeway to construct lessons suited to individual classes (and to decorate their classrooms as they see fit); and reading is perceived as an enjoyable activity rather than the annoying precursor to a BCR.

Thus the No Child Left Behind law, billed as a boon to underperforming poor and minority students, is revealed as yet another vehicle for disparate treatment -- and a way of blaming public schools and teachers for factors often outside their control.

Yet, despite it all, Tyler did pull off those amazing test scores, which these days are the only measure of success that really counts.

All of this and more is illustrated by Perlstein's trenchant observations in "Tested." Unfortunately, this otherwise commendable book fails to connect the dots, to make a case either for or against the No Child Left Behind approach. Even the fundamental question at the book's beginning -- whether the great tests scores were a fluke, proof of educator excellence or evidence of a broken testing regime -- is never answered.

Perlstein, a former Washington Post education reporter and author of an earlier book about middle school, "Not Much Just Chillin'," cannot bring herself to pass judgment on much of what she observes. Instead, "Tested" strikes a false journalistic balance between unequal positions.

A good example is her treatment of the No Child Left Behind law's requirement that all U.S. students pass the annual tests by 2014, a goal always regarded, even by supporters, as impossible to achieve. No Child Left Behind, in effect, is designed to brand large numbers of public schools as failures, opening them up to takeover, closure or privatization. Yet Perlstein introduces this deadline without comment, then praises President Bush's championing of it as an attempt to "force real reform in every state" -- a statement belied by almost everything she goes on to report from the classrooms at Tyler.

A second shortcoming of the book is Perlstein's inattention to storytelling and character development, making "Tested" much slower and drier reading than it ought to be. The students at Tyler mostly come across as interchangeable stick figures, their teachers not much better drawn. Even the main character, Tyler's principal, seems a cipher.

That said, "Tested" is on balance a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the state of American public schools. Perlstein's portrait is alternately heartbreaking and enraging as it offers up important observations about the unintended and undesirable consequences of our current testing obsession. •

Edward Humes is the author of nine nonfiction books, including "Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion and the Battle for America's Soul" and "School of Dreams: Making the Grade at a Top American High School."

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