I’ve read academic analyses of the effects of No Child Left Behind; I’ve read political arguments for and against re-authorization of the bill. Every year, I read the ambiguously optimistic statements of local and state education officials as they explain annual scores to the public. I’ve listened to teachers grumble; I’ve commiserated with colleagues who struggle to convince our students that history and the arts still matter.
But I’d never choked up over anything NCLB related until reading Linda Perlstein’s Tested, an eloquent book about a year in the life of a low-income school with exceptionally high test scores. The teachers in this school are required to teach strictly to the script; the children write endless formulaic paragraphs. They’re subjected to frequent benchmark tests and practice tests and are sent home for the summer with fat notebooks full of yet more test prep worksheets. For their tenacity in putting up with all of this, they come to expect that they’ll be rewarded with pop tarts, pizza and popcorn. They beg to be allowed access to the science kits in the back of the room, but science is never included in the detailed, jargonistic learning objectives that teachers must write on the board each day.
For generations, we relegated poor children to a mindless curriculum that prepared them for little of value in the world beyond low-wage jobs.
Public celebrations of test scores attained only by relegating these children to more of the same are insidious at best. When these children stumble in an adult world in which their skill at formulaic writing on contrived topics holds no value whatsoever, they, of course will blamed for their own persistent poverty. Their test scores prove, after all, that the schools have done their part.
It’s an incredibly disturbing and important book.
Perlstein, L. (2007). Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade. New York: Henry Holt.