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Book Review: Tested by Linda Perlstein

Tested by Linda Perlstein

Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade, Linda Perlstein

302 pages, Henry Holt and Co., July 2007

Critics of No Child Left Behind rejoice! Educators, policy analysts and parents who have devoted the last few years lamenting that the provisions of NCLB – namely a focus on standardized testing to measure school-wide achievement – have stifled our nation’s best teachers and eliminated imagination and creativity from the minds of American children finally have their bible. Linda Perlstein’s Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade is, for them, 12 ounces of hardcover “I told you so!”

Unfortunately for those same protesters, Tested’s superficial analysis of NCLB implementation begs a hard, critical look at two champions of their movement: the well-meaning but wayward teachers and administrators who have failed to respond adequately to NCLB’s requirements.

Perlstein, a former education writer for The Washington Post, followed up her examination of the social life of middle schoolers (Not Much Just Chillin’) with an in-depth look at the climate of Tyler Heights Elementary in Annapolis, Maryland. In 2000, Tyler Heights was a low-achieving school by state standards: only 17% of its students passed the Maryland State Assessment (MSA). Enter Tina McKnight, an energetic principal who transformed her school into a NCLB success story.

Tested opens with a mixed blessing; through McKnight’s and the district’s efforts, Tyler Heights has raised achievement to startling levels with its primarily black and Hispanic student population combining for reading and math scores flirting on both sides of 80%. But therein rests the problem. Are these scores a statistical anomaly? Can McKnight and the Anne Arundel County District administration handle the pressure to repeat – even improve on – last year’s success? Can teachers, those daily practitioners who are largely held responsible for a student’s success or failure, meet such high, seemingly-impossible expectations? And what if they don’t?

Perlstein parked herself at Tyler Heights for the following year to absorb and analyze the effects of NCLB success. Her direct observation and interviews with students, parents and staff weave a rich tapestry that presents accurately the complexity of a disadvantaged school. Most of the students live in depraved projects with a single parent and are almost wholly divorced from the culture beyond their city block. They enter school not knowing colors, shapes or numbers. Their ability to socialize normally is nearly non-existent. Harming their development further, students come and go through TylerHeights at an alarming rate – and so do the teachers, most of whom are young and inexperienced. The situation in which Tyler Heights finds itself is remarkable because it is so painfully common.

How, then, can McKnight, her superiors and her staff prepare these students adequately for the MSA? They begin by reforming the curriculum – Saxon Math and Open Court for reading – to build fundamental English and quantitative skills, the foundation on which these students will build the rest of their lives.

And this is when the friction starts. Teachers resent following highly-structured curricula tailored to Maryland’s assessment. Students are required to practice endlessly the written BCR (Basic Constructed Response), a short paragraph that demonstrates a student’s reading comprehension with no emphasis on writing skills. Perlstein sympathizes generously with the teachers who feel forced to teach to the test and with students who would rather act out plays than churn widgets from the Tyler Heights BCR factory. She writes:

“Think about your favorite teachers from your youth: the ones who changed your life. The ones who taught you lessons you carry with you decades later. Chances are, these were teachers with a gift for improvisation, artists of the classroom who brought a spark of life to the most mundane subjects. Chances are, they didn’t teach from a script.” [p. 50]

While Perlstein interjects personal judgment about Tyler Heights’ stifling curriculum – judgment not cited or based on any empirical, verifiable evidence – she fails to hold the teachers accountable for perpetuating a disconnect between MSA requirements and a meaningful curriculum.

Do you know BATS? Can you identify hundred-dollar words? What does Mr. Trickster have to do with the MSA? Have you used your whisper-phone? It’s ok, just follow YoJo’s advice. [These terms are explained at the end of the article.]

If the last paragraph didn’t make any sense to you, you’re not alone. Tyler Heights’ parents don’t have a clue what it means, either. These are the confusing, irrelevant testing strategies pushed on Tyler Heights’ students in an attempt to master the MSA. How, then, can we expect a parent to understand the incomprehensible jargon associated with their third-grader’s daily approach to reading? I pity both the parent and student who, in that rare case of the two minds coming together in the evening to complete homework, are unable to communicate in a meaningful way because of the obtuse, non-transferable jargon perpetuated by McKnight and her staff. (After months of MSA-focused preparation, a presentation in which these phrases were explained was finally given to parents 18 days before the test.) Further alienating already-disengaged parents from their child’s education runs counter to the well-documented needs of Tyler Heights, but Perlstein either fails to realize that or ignores it purposely.

Perlstein half-heartedly indicts educrats throughout the book by showing the absurdity of jargon and an unwavering insistence on learning outcomes (ribbing “Develop expressive and receptive vocabulary to begin to classify things found in the home environment,” for example). She is right to do that; Tyler Heights is subjected to (and subjects itself to via several consultants) such meaningless analyses in every chapter. But Perlstein would have you believe that only these enemies of the child, those who insist on NCLB-mandated achievement at all costs and have the same warmth for children as Matilda’s Miss Trunchbull, practice these strategies. Where she thinks Tyler Heights’ staff are educated is beyond me; it doesn’t occur to her that their methods and approaches to teaching are the banal products of the irrelevant learning outcomes that she decries.

Tyler Heights’ staff exposes a nationwide allergy to accountability among teachers and administrators. They, like so many public educators, are simply ill-equipped to integrate accountability measures into curriculum in a way that engages students and delivers relevant skills. Ironically, these teachers and Perlstein see NCLB provisions as transforming Tyler Heights’ young into automatons. They fail to realize that they themselves are unable to give the students basic skills in any other way.

Perlstein constantly tries to humanize the staff, apologetically distancing them from accountability practices and masking their inability to educate. If only teachers could direct plays written by 7-year olds and performed in ice cream castles floating on clouds. If only teachers could dance around a classroom with a perpetual smile, all students sitting in “learning position” [p. 44] as they composed the great American novel (and a full symphonic score to go with the stage version, I imagine). If only, Perlstein seems to wish.

Policy wonks will be disappointed. Though much of Tested is a veiled indictment of our new age of accountability, Perlstein never makes an explicit determination on NCLB. Had she tried, Tested would be a total failure; her demonstrated lack of understanding regarding education, further complicated by an even-worse understanding of scholarship (Perlstein tends to cherry-pick her citations/evidence and rely too heavily on EdWeek articles), would make for unconvincing conclusions regardless of her position.

Perlstein is at her best when profiling the personalities of Tyler Heights. Her understanding of the thoughts, feelings and responses of the stakeholders in Tyler Heights portrays them in remarkable depth; she interprets her subjects with uncommon clarity and compassion. The emotions exhibited by students and staff – ranging from hope to despair and including everything in between – are touching, a difficult feat for which Perlstein deserves praise.

The flaws in Tested make it a necessary read for all stakeholders in education. It provides a detailed glimpse into the minds of many on the fringe of education who, through faulty logic, commitments to Hollywood-style education Utopias and a selective focus on problems, criticize advances and clamor for unrealistic or ineffectual reforms. Perlstein has unwittingly sacrificed her dignity to do the education world a great service by exposing bootless teacher/administrator education programs, a situation that, if ignored, will hinder further the closing of the achievement gap.

Tested unintentionally lays bare pressing problems in teaching and how we approach public education. For the sake of Tyler Heights’ future students – and those throughout the nation – let’s hope that the next book offers some solutions.

Terminology:

BATS: Borrow from the question, Answer the question, use Text supports, Stretch analysis [p.87]. An example of BATS in action: “Damon and Pythias is a play because it has the elements of a play. Some elements of a play are that plays have stage directions. Also, there is a narrator. This play also has a lot of characters. So I know this play has all the features it needs.” [p. 127]

Hundred-dollar words: Words important to include in BCRs. Transitions such as “because” or “so I think” and MSA vocabulary words such as “character trait” and “dialogue” [p.87]

Mr. Trickster: A process of elimination for multiple choice questions [p. 183]

Whisper-phone: A “C-shaped section of PVC pipe held to [the] ears” through which a student reads aloud their BCR response to check for meaning [p. 127]

YoJo: A large, sports mascot-style character who gave a test-taking strategies performance at a Tyler Heights assembly [p. 172]

9 Responses to “Book Review: Tested by Linda Perlstein”

  1. David Mackey says:

    Growing up I took the CAT (California Achievement Test) for most of my life as my standard assessment. Later I would take the PSAT and SAT, as well as the ACT. Then there were the Regents exams. The variety of testing may be confusing, if so it is because I was educated for several years at the beginning and end of my education in public schools and throughout the rest in private schools or homeschooled. I must say, I have always hated standardized testing. It drove me insane. Not so much the test itself, but the redundancy of the instructions – over and over again. And the waiting. I never went back to check my answers (and, yes, I did fairly well, thank you).

  2. Matthew, this is arguably the most insightful and eloquent post you’ve written (at least since I’ve been reading). You have me dying to get Perlstein’s book.

    My only criticism (forgive me) is that I’m not sure of your position on a few issues. You villify Perlstein for not taking a clear stance on NCLB, and you criticize her for giving the Tyler teachers a pass, rather than bashing them for not knowing how to meet standards. Maybe I simply missed your point.

    Without reading the book, let me say that there are indeed teachers who struggle with meeting standards and teaching to the test; I know many as my own colleagues. It doesn’t always mean they’re bad teachers, though. They just feel pressure, most of which comes directly from superintendents telling them they’ll lose their job if their students don’t pass achievement tests.

    I’m guessing as soon as we get a Democrat in office, most of this issue will become moot.

    Thanks again for a marvelous review and commentary.

  3. Matthew says:

    David,

    I seem to remember the CTBS tests when I was an elementary student at Cooperstown in NY. PLAN/PACT, PSAT, SAT, ACT, LSAT, GRE… I’ve taken those and prepared others for the MCAT, GMAT, and any possible combination of 3 or 4 letters than any educator can create. I personally like assessment of most all types.

    The instructions, the instructions… I think they’ll be easier to swallow when we can click-through on a screen at our own pace. The last computer-based test I took was the GRE. I’m sure it had plenty of repetition, I just didn’t notice as I cruised through instructions with which I was familiar.

  4. Matthew says:

    Mark,

    Thanks for the kind words about the review. I was sincere when I said that everyone should read this book – it’s one of the most instructive education policy texts out there.

    I was glad that Perlstein didn’t take a hard stance on NCLB, but from the billing this book has received on so many websites you’d think it was real policy analysis. I simply don’t understand that interpretation.

    I wish that she had spent some time analyzing Tyler Heights’ teachers. She presents their struggles with the MAS as a foregone conclusion. The few times she takes a baby step toward the argument ends when she blames MAS requirements or Saxon/Open Court for being restrictive. A teacher who throws up his hands in the face of accountability rather than working with it is a failing teacher. I felt that she purposely avoided this. In her defense, I can see where it would be uncomfortable to spend a full year in a school that has opened its arms, hearts and minds to you and then criticize to the nth degree their practices – even if warranted.

    If the teachers you mention struggle with standards and underperform, they aren’t good teachers. They may have the ability, but if they aren’t practicing it and producing results, those abilities are moot. It’s sort of like a pitcher who throws a 101mph fastball but has no control over it. If he can’t use his talents within the scope of the game to produce positive results, those talents are just possibilities.

    The good thing about possibilities is that a strong commitment to professional development can take potentially-effective teachers and turn them into real producers. To say that they’re great teachers until then, however, is a mistake.

  5. Matthew, my only problem with your comment on teachers “struggling with standards” is that the standards are so poorly written that, in most cases, we shouldn’t be teaching them at all.

    Ohio has more standards than any state, and only about 70 percent of them are actually on the achievement test. Most teachers, especially those new to the profession, try to teach all of them. Some veterans, like me, realize that the threat of dismissal is an empty one, and they just keep teaching the curriculum that really needs to be taught — even if it strays from NCLB standards.

    Professional development can be a slippery slope, because in many cases the instructors are no better than those writing the standards.

    I realize this sounds cynical, but I’ve found, in 15 years in the profession, that more often than not this is how it is.

    Not to beat a dead horse, but I’m hoping, come 2008, this won’t be as big an issue as it currently is.

    Again, thanks for such thought-provoking stuff.

  6. Grace says:

    hi i enjoyed the read

  7. Deanna Enos says:

    I’m sure Linda discovered as I have that the NCLB Act has an impossible goal. !00% proficiency in 2014 in reading, math and science. Educators know that this is hopeless target and as Margaret Spellings says, “Education will have it’s day of reckoning then.” The NCLB Act is a law written to condemn schools not educate children. Adequate yearly progress means pressure for schools to continually get higher scores on their testing. Test anxiety is the result of all this pressure, for administrators, teachers, parents and students. This law must be changed and I commend Linda Perlstein for taking on the issue and using her writing skills to lift awareness.

  8. It is really very nice book and you love reading this book.

  9. Deanna,

    You’ve made up your mind – no need for me to engage.

    Angelina,

    No, it’s a poorly reasoned, biased book.

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