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July 29, 2007|Edward Humes | 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."


One American School Struggles to Make the Grade

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.

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