Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade by Linda Perlstein (Henry Holt, 320 pages, $25.00)
Tested immerses us in a year at an alleged NCLB success story, Annapolis, Maryland’s Tyler Heights Elementary School, a struggling school serving a district’s most underprepared children. Linda Perlstein illustrates how much an energetic, savvy group of educators can accomplish; we cheer even as we doubt the value of that success and mourn its accompanying sacrifices. Increased standardized state test scores in the service of AYP demands relentlessly drilling small children from a poor, tough, urban neighborhood. Staff members are keenly aware that “good” test scores validate educationally damaging practices. The stultifying effects of scripted curriculum calcifies their professional lives, demanding interaction with children without energy and creativity. Dogged devotion to creating competence in the shallow skills and content covered by the state tests requires denying field trips, project-based learning, and imaginative play to students who would so clearly benefit from making meaning of their world, demonstrating that addressing the achievement gap via high-stakes standardized tests creates an engagement gap.
Without breaking suspense about whether Tyler Heights tests well two years in a row, I will disclose my ambivalence about the school’s quest for high scores. Even as I rooted for the school to succeed – it would take a hard heart not to – I was devastated by the validation such success bestows upon the multibillion dollar “school improvement” industry that unflinchingly takes credit for the hard work of teachers and students doing their best in an appalling system. And at the same time, I unswervingly respect and admire the Tyler Heights staff members’ hard work, and can’t help imagining the powerful educational experiences they would be able to create if they worked within a much better system. Weeks after reading Tested, the words of a Tyler Height teacher have echoed unrelentingly in my consciousness. Reflecting on the state test, she commented, “That’s just the bottom of what kids should know, It’s not like were calling them brilliant. We’re still shooting for the basement. We celebrate the bottom right now. I pray we don’t have to keep celebrating the bottom.”
Read Tested, and share it widely, for a sobering understanding of the effects of misguided educational policy on real lives.