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Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade.

by Linda Perlstein

Henry Holt and Co.


reviewed by Rick Ayers
I knew a man from a small Mayan village.  He said something that has always stayed with me.  “When you look out at the ruins of Tenochtitlan, with its massive buildings and straight avenues, perhaps you see evidence of a great civilization.  What I see is a fascist nightmare.” 

I couldn’t help thinking of that phrase again and again as I read Linda Perlstein’s Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade.   Perlstein, an education reporter for the Washington Post, has spent a year in a low-income elementary school in Annapolis, Maryland.  Specifically, she was looking at the impacts of testing, of No Child Left Behind and the Maryland School Assessment (MSA) on children’s lives.  What she found, while not always fascist, was certainly a nightmare.

Perlstein has done what hardly anyone else has in the current policy debates on education and testing:  spent time in a real school, with real people, for enough time to get a feel for the daily life of children.  At Tyler Heights Elementary School we meet youngsters caught up in a frenzy of test prep and drills – driven by a principal and superintendent who are obsessed with meeting the MSA test levels so their school won’t be punished. 

The year starts with a buzz of excitement because Tyler Heights has scored well, very well, in the previous year in the tests.  The anxiety now was to be able to repeat the results. “Scores were posted throughout the school and recited at meetings, a constant reminder of the ultimate goal.”  Teachers were held to scripted curricula, required to make academic progress every day.  On day one, first graders were drilled on the difference between consonants and vowels.  By now, independent reading, and rich imaginative play were out the window. 

In this brave new world of schooling, students don’t simply respond to a piece of writing.  They must learn (in third grade) to create a “brief constructed response” – which has an acronym like everything else, it’s a BCR.  Students are taught to use BATS, to borrow from the question, answer the question, use text support, and stretch.  These students must do five BCRs per day, in their practice for the March testing days.  They must also answer the question, “why is this a poem?” with such inane (and wrong) comments like, “I know it is a poem because it rhymes and has stanzas.”  Don’t tell Allen Ginsberg about this.  Stories are reduced to the “message” – devoid of wonder.  My writing teacher in college told me, “Only Western Union sends messages.”

Some schools, the ones that make a fetish of test prep, indeed make improvements in test scores.  But is this good education? At Tyler Heights, physical education, art, music, play, and even science are pretty much set aside.  And whatever small amount of art or exercise they do is justified because it might help math scores, not because it has value in itself.  What kind of citizens are we making here?

So, you might wonder, what if we are miseducating the kids a bit, making them stupid in the short run so they can perform higher tasks later?  At least they are learning, right?  But you have to look more closely.  Students are required to sit in a “learning position”:  with feet on the floor, back against the chair, hands on desk, head up and forward.  Students are criticized, harped at, intimidated, and threatened. 

During an attempt to cram geography factoids into a group of third graders, one teacher became frustrated with the squirming and distraction of the kids.  “‘Put your papers away in your social studies folder and put your heads down,’ Miss Johnson said.  ‘I’m done teaching for today.  I’m not talking any more.  You don’t want to get smarter, that’s your problem.  If you don’t pass third grade, if you don’t pass your report card, if you don’t pass the MSA, you can explain to your parents why not.  If you want your third grade to be awful and miserable, keep doing what you’re doing.’”  (p. 49)  Wow, sounds like a lot of people are confused about their responsibility. 

This horror is not for all kids, of course.  Don’t believe the children of politicians suffer these tortures – most of them go to wealthy suburban or private schools where independent thinking, critical reflection, and free play are the norm. Even at nearby Crofton Elementary School, with a white middle-class population, test scores were always pretty good and students were treated to projects, field trips, and creative writing. The tests, you see, are calibrated to white middle-class discourse and approaches so the achievement gap is in place before the students ever arrive at school.

One of the most disturbing discoveries Perlstein has made in her investigation is the host of consultants and packaged education programs that buzz around schools, selling them pre-packaged curricula and test-boosters.  Like the war profiteers who respond with glee to the Iraq quagmire, these companies make literally billions in the currently constructed education crisis.  Some of the catchy names that show up at Tyler Heights include the Open Court reading script from McGraw-Hill (for which the district paid $7 million for just one year), Saxon Math, Corrective Reading, Soar to Success, SpellRead, Brain Gym (who present a new age set of exercises called Education Kinesiology, I’m not kidding, that costs a pretty penny), Second Step (violence prevention), Ace Your Test, Polishing the Apple, Total Quality Management, and the Positive Behavioral Intervention System.   The latter has teachers writing on turkey decoration during Thanksgiving:  “We are thankful for great behavior!”

Perlstein’s account makes the reader shudder and wonder how we let education “reform” become such a mess.  My one quibble with her is that she tends to repeat the misinformed prejudices about the inadequacies and deficits of the poor, mostly African American and Latino, community.  The stereotype that the community is rife with crack, abusive parents, malnutrition, and constant television is belied by real data (there is often more cocaine, alcoholism, divorce in nearby wealthy communities – yet kids are doing well in school).  Pathologizing the poor instead of looking for ways to make education institutions more relevant is an old game in public policy.

As Wisconsin education professor Gloria Ladson-Billings has pointed out, we should not define the problem as an “achievement gap” as much as an educational debt that has accumulated as a result of centuries of denial of access to education and employment – which is exacerbated by deepening poverty and the lack of funding for schools.

One comes away from Tested with a sad sympathy for the people involved.  The children, of course, who endure this official abuse; the families who are marginalized and detested by the schools; even the principal and the staff, who are working hard every day on this impossible project.  After all, just because it is wrong does not mean it is not a lot of hard work.

Rick Ayers is the author of Great Books for High School Kids A Teacher’s Guide to Books That Can Change Teens’ Lives

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