The pressure is on at schools across America. In recent years, reforms such as No Child Left Behind have created a new vision of education that emphasizes provable results, uniformity, and greater attention for floundering students. Schools are expected to behave more like businesses and judged almost solely on the bottom line: test scores.
To see if this world is producing better students, Linda Perlstein immersed herself in a suburban Maryland elementary school. The resulting portrait—detailed, human, and thought-provoking—is marked by the same narrative gifts and expertise that made Not Much Just Chillin' so illuminating.
The school, once deemed a failure, is now held up as an example of reform done right. Perlstein explores the rewards and costs of that transformation, through the experiences of the people who lived it. Nine-year-olds meditate to activate their brains before exams and kindergartners write paragraphs. Teachers attempt to address diverse needs at the same time they are expected to follow daily scripts, and feel compelled to focus on topics that will be tested at the expense of those that won't. The principal attempts to keep it all together, in the face of immense challenges.
Perlstein provides the first detailed view of how new education policies are modified by human realities. Tested will be talked about, thought about, written about—and will almost certainly play an important role in the national debate as the federal education law come up for renewal.
"I know 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, built with the conquest of countless villages like mine' . . . Perlstein, a former education report for the Washington Post, spent a year in a low-income elementary school in Annapolis, Md. 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, long enough to get a feel for the daily lives of children . . . Perlstein's account makes the reader shudder and wonder how we let education ‘reform' become such a mess."—Rick Ayers, San Francisco Chronicle
"Author Linda Perlstein reports, in an engaging format, on one elementary school's prevailing culture as defined by No Child Left Behind. Her work Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade details the impact of mandated assessments on the lives of students and staff over the course of a full school year. A veteran education reporter formerly with the The Sun in Baltimore, Md., Perlstein observes the interactions between the principal and her teachers, as well as between teachers and students. What her investigation reveals is the stress not only of the professionals but also the students themselves as they struggle to achieve adequate yearly progress. And what Perlstein points out is the loss of natural curiosity and creativity among the students as teachers manage instruction within the narrow confines of a state assessment. There is one especially revealing scene in the book during a school assembly. For most of us, assemblies inform through entertainment, addressing issues as diverse as drug abuse to the wonders of science experiments. Regardless of their topic, they tend to focus on expanding a child's knowledge. Perlstein describes a very different assembly—one whose defining purpose is to motivate the students to do their best on the upcoming state-mandated test that will lead to official judgments about the quality of their school . . . Tested serves as a reminder of what students, teachers and principals deal with daily. It should be required reading for everyone in the U.S. Congress to showcase the unintended consequences of passing legislation without engaging the very communities for which it is intended."—Marc Space, The School Administrator
"Deploying the fine fly-on-the-wall reporting skills that made her previous book, Not Much Just Chillin', so uncannily evocative of the lives of middle school kids, she opens a window into a school that has become over-the-top test obsessed. She weaves in extensive discussions of federal education policy, pushing readers to the conclusion that the standards and accountability movement in general and No Child Left Behind in particular have gone badly awry. Perlstein paints a sobering portrait of Tyler Heights."—Ben Wildavsky, The Miami Herald
"It's not just parents who should be losing sleep after reading Tested. The rest of us pay taxes that support school systems in the U.S. and, even more important—even beyond the moral requirement that we are all responsible for educating children to the best of their abilities and ours—is the fact that we will all be sharing the world with the products of the American educational system for the rest of our lives . . . Someday we will have to depend on them. Tested questions whether we are adequately preparing the nation's children to be any of these things, and whether they will have any reason to feel we have fulfilled our part of the bargain . . . 'Test' has surely become a four-letter word to teachers and principals by now; it certainly is to me after following Linda Perlstein, an experienced education reporter, through a year at Tyler Heights Elementary School in Annapolis."—Joanne Collings, The Examiner
"If you ever wonder what it's like to face the challenges of a modern-day elementary school in today's era of overkill testing, you should read Tested. Linda Perlstein may not change your mind about high-stakes testing. She is not arguing a point; she is telling a story. It's a remarkable story, too. For one year the reader is totally immersed in the culture and happenings of one elementary school—Tyler Heights—in Annapolis, Md. . . . Perlstein tells the story in such plain language and makes the story so real that you will truly be able to empathize with these wonderful teachers and their amazing principal . . . A great story that will leave you feeling both triumphant and a little bit melancholy."—Eric Mackey, The Anniston Star
"If you want to know what is going on in our schools in the age of 'No Child Left Behind,' this is the book to read. To the heroism of our over-blamed teachers and to the cluelessness of our administrators and policy makers, especially those who have imposed unwise test regimens in response to the new law, Linda Perlstein's gripping story is an indispensable guide."—E. D. Hirsch, Jr., author of The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy and The Knowledge Deficit
"Amid all the heated rhetoric and mind-numbing statistics, it is too often easy to forget that behind test scores are real children in real classrooms. By taking us inside Tyler Heights Elementary School, Linda Perlstein provides a useful lesson by showing that test scores alone do not tell us the whole story. It's a lesson policy makers and others who care about education would do well to heed."—Robert Rothman, editor of Voices in Urban Education
"When reform itself becomes the lie, what then? Linda Perlstein's Tested is essential reading for anyone who still believes that statistics alone can be the measure of a child's educational potential and standing—and for those, as well, who have long doubted the simplistic premise of 'No Child Left Behind' but were without the facts to affirm those doubts. Tina McKnight, the principal of Tyler Heights Elementary, is a woman worth cheering, but the crusade she and others have been asked to fight is far more suspect. Children, teachers, school administrators—this is the human element, the souls actually at stake—and they are now—all of them—prisoners of politics and public perception."—David Simon, author of Homicide and The Corner and executive producer of The Wire
"The predominately minority and low-income students at Tyler Heights Elementary School in Annapolis, Maryland, showed huge improvement in their state standardized tests, securing the future of their teachers and principal—and pleasing parents—until the next round of tests the following year. Could they sustain the level of improvement when so many children came to school hungry, abused, or poisoned by lead paint? The state looked at overall improvement year to year rather than the progress of individual students. Could the teachers and principal Tina McKnight continue to perform under the pressure? Perlstein details how McKnight and the teachers at the once-failing elementary school spend much of their day strategizing about the test, under scrutiny by the local board of education. Perlstein brings telling details, engagement, and perception to her investigation of how a single school coped with the high stakes attached to standardized tests. As educators and lawmakers ponder the renewal of No Child Left Behind, this book offers some piercing insight into the reality of reliance on standardized tests to measure a school's effectiveness."—Vanessa Bush, Booklist
"Though the jury is still out regarding the controversial 2001 education act known as 'No Child Left Behind,' it's safe to call it a mixed blessing for at-risk 'Title 1' schools who rely on federal funding to pay teachers and support staff: under the new policy, federal funding can be taken away if schools fail to make 'adequate yearly progress,' as measured by country-wide standardized testing. Education reporter and author Perlstein uses an engaging, up-close-and-personal style to examine one such school, suburban Maryland's Tyler Heights Elementary—a failing institution destined for a big turnaround—to discover the positives and negatives of the 'school accountability movement' in which 'No Child' is rooted; in particular, Perlstein wants to know, 'What were the test scores about?' Tales of third graders prepping for an exam prove genuinely, surprisingly dramatic; Perlstein crafts a gripping narrative out of the day-to-day business of education through solid reporting, taking into consideration the politics, goals, interests and architects of the program ('Lobbyists for testing and school improvement businesses had a far greater role in the law's creation than . . . actual educators'). The faces of children, teachers and administrators emerge vividly, and Perlstein largely avoids taking sides in favor of an honest, enlightening look at the complex reality of this much-debated policy."—Publishers Weekly