Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Book Review: Tested

(First, an apology: Sorry for the long delay in posts. I blame the holidays. Sorry if my hiatus has caused problems for either of the people who ever visit...)

I don't remember a lot about third grade. I remember even less about how I was taught reading and math in third grade. In math, I remember that we did a lot of Mad Minutes. (For those unfamiliar with the concept, a Mad Minute is a 30-problem math test that students try to complete in--you guessed it--one minute. The problems start out easy--for example, I think Mad Minute 1-1 is multiplication by 1--and get progressively harder. A Mad Minute minimally tests mathematical skill; it's more a test of a student's ability to memorize a list of 30 numbers and write them down in one minute.)

In reading, I remember we used a basal reader (although I didn't know that's what it was called), and that we were put into reading groups, each of which got a different reader. (I was in a group called the "Odd Balls," so named because there was only one boy in the group. I think the groups were roughly homogeneous in terms of level--certainly the others in my group were among the higher students in the class.) I remember we also did a lot of writing: short stories, poems, etc.

If I had attended third grade at Tyler Heights Elementary in Maryland, I would have learned math by rote. I would have learned to read by reading the same passage each day for a week and answering the same types of questions over and over again. I could have gone to another classroom and heard their teacher saying pretty much the same thing my teacher was saying, because all the teachers would have been reading from the same teacher guide, and their district curricula would have dictated when they would move from one topic to another. I would have learned how to write 3-4 sentence Brief Constructed Responses to standardized questions (such as, "What features of the instructions make them easy for third-graders to follow?"), but I would have done almost no other writing. And I would have spent most of the year learning how to take the Maryland State Assessment (MSA).

At least, that's what the third graders profiled in Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade, by Linda Perlstein, experienced. In Tested, Perlstein describes a (school) year in the life of the third grade at Tyler Heights Elementary in Annapolis. Tyler Heights was listed as a "failing" school under No Child Left Behind (NCLB). In one year, they turned their test scores around and had an MSA pass rate of more than 75%. The school was widely touted in the press as a "success story," which is what caught Perlstein's attention. In Tested, Perlstein attempts to answer the questions "How did Tyler Heights turn its scores around?" and "What do those test scores mean?"

Tyler Heights was praised as a success story largely because most people expected it to keep failing. Most of the students at Tyler Heights are poor and non-white; many of them are homeless, have absent parents, or do not get adequate food at home. (The school serves both breakfast and lunch to its students to help ensure that most students get at least two good meals a day.) The school receives so much Title 1 money that it sometimes has trouble spending it all. Many of its students don't show up for school; some of them show up when school is closed, because their parents don't pay attention to closures. In short, it fulfills every stereotype of a failing school.

Perlstein got permission from the school to essentially live in the building for an entire school year. She was allowed to interview students, parents, teachers, and administrators, and to report her observations and interviews. It's hard to believe that such freedom would be granted in this day and age, but the result is as exceptional as one would hope: Perlstein's book is informative, well written, and gripping. Her descriptions of day-to-day life at Tyler Heights are vivid; I could almost hear some of the students' and teachers' voices by the end of the book.

The story Perlstein tells in Tested is one that probably will not surprise most educators: Tyler Heights got its scores up by drilling students every day on how to answer the questions they would most likely see on the MSA. The only types of questions they ever saw were those that were similar to MSA questions; the only content they covered was content within the testable limits of the Maryland Voluntary State Curriculum (which isn't really voluntary, since the MSA is based on it, and thanks to NCLB, students have to pass the MSA for a school to continue to receive funding).

The book focuses primarily on the reading curriculum (possibly because it's harder to argue about how to write a test that truly tests students' ability to do math). Tyler Heights uses a program specifically designed to raise students' test scores; because most reading tests focus exclusively on reading comprehension, students spend almost no time writing, reading for fun, or doing any of the other things that help get kids excited about reading. (At one point in the book, Perlstein relates a situation in which students who had finished an exam early were reading silently at their desks. The teacher was told that students who finish early must go back and continue working on their answers; they were not to read "fun books" outside of designated time slots.)

As would many educators (okay, maybe I'm inflating myself a bit, but someone who writes textbooks and lessons is still an educator, right?), I found the stories Perlstein tells about a typical Tyler Heights third grade day disturbing. The curriculum seemed designed to drum out of students any vestige of curiosity they might have; the reading curriculum certainly was unlikely to instill in any child a love of reading, or an ability to write coherently. It's especially disturbing because one could argue that these kids are the ones most in need of that kind of inspiration.

But although I found the stories disturbing, sadly, they did not surprise me. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to predict that if most of a school's funding (or even a significant portion of it) is based on whether students pass a standardized test, that school is probably going to focus on giving students as much practice on that test as possible. (There's a good reason most students' scores on the SAT increase the second time they take the test: practice, as they say, makes perfect.)

Don't get me wrong; I don't necessarily think the administration at Tyler Heights made a bad choice in implementing the programs they have. As long as NCLB controls funding and public perception of school success, schools will continue to focus on getting kids to pass the test at any cost. And in a community with almost no parental support for education (percent attendance at parent-teacher night at Tyler Heights rarely reaches double digits), there aren't a lot of ways to get those test scores up other than drill, drill, drill. But just because I understand the administration's decision doesn't mean I think all is well in schools like Tyler Heights (because I'm sure there are hundreds of schools around the country in a similar situation). Of course, I could go off on a long, long rant about my thoughts on public education today--but this is supposed to be a book review, so I'll stop there.

Tested should be required reading for anyone curious about the effects of NCLB (or high-stakes testing in general) or the realities of teaching in a low-income, urban school district. Heck, they should put it on the mandatory reading list for the U.S. Department of Education. (Do they even have one of those? If they don't, they should!) But when you do read it, be prepared to be disturbed and saddened (and a little inspired, too).

Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade
Linda Perlstein
Henry Holt and Co., 2007 (1st edition); Holt Paperbacks, 2008 (Reprint)
ISBN 978-0805080827 (hardcover), 978-0805088021 (paperback)

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