Tested: The price we pay to make the grade

A few months back, I sat down for an interview with a reporter from Ed Week. ‘How has NCLB changed your work?’ she asked.

Her question hasn’t yet left my mind because No Child Left Behind has profoundly changed the teaching and learning happening in my classroom. Policymakers and my principal would likely say that I’m more “focused on results” than ever before. “Data drives every decision” in my room and “best practices” are being identified and implemented.

Sounds ideal, doesn’t it?

The problem is that my work—once equal part art and science—has become almost mechanical and somewhat mindless. You see, our “focus on results” is limited to the only type of results that seem to draw attention in America anymore: student scores on end of grade exams. The pressure of showing constant growth on the standardized tests shapes nearly every decision that I make because I know that my effectiveness will be judged on those scores alone.

What impact has this had on my kids?

Perhaps most noticeably, test preparation—something that I swore I would never do—has seeped into more of my lessons than ever before and the teachable moments that once excited my students and made my classroom memorable have been swept aside. We just don’t have time for free exploration anymore—detours leave me falling behind in the pre-defined pacing guides. Imagination has been replaced with focus lessons that prepare students for the common formative assessments (read: multiple choice practice tests) that we take every three weeks in math, reading, grammar and science.

What’s really frightening about this new reality is that I teach in a highly successful suburban school!

The changes redefining “education” in room 2415—my home for the past five years—are only amplified in schools serving high percentages of students living in poverty, like Tyler Heights Elementary, where education writer Linda Perlstein spent the 2005-2006 academic year researching her new book, Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade.

Tyler Heights—like most urban schools in decaying neighborhoods—had always struggled to match the performance of its suburban neighbors. After all, the children attending Tyler Heights were faced with almost unimaginable challenges and often came to school several months behind and unprepared to learn. These challenges didn’t frighten Principal Tina McKnight, however, who worked tirelessly to ensure that her students had access to some of the best teachers available—even if almost half would have to be replaced every year.

With almost missionary fervor, McKnight and her staff sought out resources that were motivating to students and invested the countless hours necessary to produce meaningful results. A synergy surrounded the school, even if “success” fell short by most standards.

The focus on the struggles of Tyler Heights only intensified in 2001, when President Bush reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—and connected continued federal education funding to a school’s ability to produce “adequate yearly progress” in its student population. No longer were honest efforts and progress enough. Instead, pre-determined targets were set and schools were “held accountable” if those targets weren’t met.

Changes were made quickly in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, including the hiring of a superintendent who guaranteed results—particularly for students living in poverty. New programs were identified by county experts and mandated for all schools with little faculty input. Regular monitoring of implementation was conducted, and teachers who drifted from the scripted curriculum were quickly corrected. Children’s days became a blur of BCRs—brief constructed responses that mirrored the essay questions forming the cornerstone of the Maryland standardized testing program (MSA).

Initially resisted, the rigid curricular changes had an almost immediate impact. Tyler Heights moved from having less than 40% to almost 80% of their students demonstrating proficiency on the MSA in two short years. The turnaround was celebrated and recognized in newspapers ranging from the Washington Post to the Baltimore Sun. Success felt good to the Tyler Heights community—a neighborhood not used to positive attention.

Understanding that success is short-lived—you’re only as good as your last set of test scores—McKnight and her staff worked to duplicate the results that had astounded a district with less than high expectations for the students of Tyler Heights. Duplication, however, meant more of the same mind-numbing education that teachers felt inherently uneasy about.

Many of the best educators—including Alia Johnson—constantly debated leaving for schools where the pressure to meet expectations on the standardized test weren’t as great. Alia “wanted to teach in a school where children arrived each day with their homework completed…a school where she wouldn’t get so frustrated, she’d have to call her mom five times a day.” She wanted to teach in a district where learning was considered something more than writing successful BCRs and mastering practice questions on practice tests every other week. “If she had her way,” writes Perlstein, Johnson would “teach children who would pass the state tests as a matter of course. Or even better: children too young to be subjected to it.”

Regardless of personal feelings about standardized testing, Tyler Heights faculty members recognized that only a laser sharp focus on preparation could possibly result in scores that matched or exceeded their recent success. Regular chants—by parents, students and teachers—served as constant reminders of where the school had been and where it was expected to be. “Reading, say it with me!” McKnight would call out at nearly every school-wide gathering.

“Eighty-five point seven!”

“Math?”

“Seventy-nine point six!”

“What are McKnight’s ten rules for learning?”

“Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, and read.”

Social studies and science instruction was essentially set aside in favor of providing more time for reading and mathematics. Field trips and special events were almost completely eliminated, unless—like the school’s visit from Yojo, a friendly misfit with blue fur and red hair who shared test-taking tips—they were directly connected to preparing students for the demands of the MSA. Constant practice tests were delivered to determine which students needed extra preparation in order to succeed. The children buckled under the boredom and repetition of a curriculum that rarely varied and was completely disconnected from their personal experiences and interests.

As Perlstein writes, “Today, Cyrus was spaced out…As his classmates continued in the MSA practice workbook, he stood over the trash can, cleaning his nose. Slowly he folded a paper towel open and shut, open and shut. He blew gently to release the hanging snot. Cyrus’s head hurt. His stomach hurt. His scalp itched too—all symptoms that he attributed to the MSA.

“‘I’m glad I’m sick,’ he would tell me quietly at lunch. ‘Then I won’t have to take the test.”

Despite the angst, Tyler Heights was “rewarded” with results once again when McKnight opened the school’s end-of-grade performance report in June of 2006 and realized that 87.4 percent of her students were on grade level in reading and 80 percent were on grade level in mathematics. “It wasn’t a fluke,” she cried just before jubilation and a sense of relief spread across her entire faculty.

But throughout Tested, readers get a sense that there’s something other than jubilation driving educators in schools today. Perhaps resignation would be a better description, as teachers are increasingly forced to set aside their knowledge of what works with kids in favor of predetermined programs selected by powerful outsiders. Constant trade-offs—so carefully highlighted in Perlstein’s work that few could deny their existence—are simply essential in order to ensure that schools “make the grade.”

Yet “making the grade” remains narrowly defined. As our nation becomes more reliant on standardized testing as an indicator of student and school achievement, we push from our classrooms the inherently human characteristics of imagination and creativity that used to drive our system of education.

Numerically, we may be superior to where we once stood.

After reading Tested, however, you’ll be left to wonder just how successful we really are.