Prior to reading the book, I took a few minutes and looked up my district's testing calendar for this year. I simply counted the days on which some type of testing is noted on the calendar. From "left-over" TAAS tests, to TAKS, to TEKS Checks, to TELPAS and ASVAB...and all the others...
Out of 175 days of instruction, my district has some form of testing scheduled on 132 of those days. That's means there are only 43 days when no student anywhere in our district is being tested.
So, of course a book about testing is going to be relevant...but will it be worth the time to read?
In the case of TESTED, absolutely!
Be warned: it will make you laugh, it will make you cry, it will make you so mad you'll want to throw the book across the room, it will make you want to hug Tina McKnight (the principal featured in the book), and it might just wake some folks up about what really happens in the Real World of High Stakes Testing. For the uninitiated, this will be an informative read. For anyone working in a public school, Stephen King hasn't come close in writing a book that will remind you of what a terrifying environment our politicians and bureaucrats have created. The author quotes one business tycoon as stating, "schools are...constantly mauled by a howling horde of disparate, competing customer groups that would send the best CEO screaming into the night."
As the book opens, it's June, 2005, and Principal Tina McKnight of Tyler Heights Elementary School in Annapolis, Maryland is waiting for her school's test results from the states high stakes Maryland School Assessment (MSA).
When McKnight first started at Tyler Elementary, 17% of the mostly poor, mostly minority students were performing satisfactorily on the MSA. By June 2005 their scores were exceptional (ie 90% of third grade passed reading). The staff holds a celebration in the library. They are reminded of the $1500 bonus each will receive. But for many, the excitement of that day's celebration is tainted with thought of what happens next. Perlstein ends Chapter One with:
"No amount of relief could erase the fact that the clock had restarted that day. The staff of Tyler Heights felt the pressure. They had exactly one year to prove that this was not a fluke."
...and this says so much about the current state of affairs in our schools. Celebrations of successful learning are tenuous at best. Doubts about the validity of it all continue to haunt the staff. What would possess professional educators to even think for a minute that student success might be a "fluke"?
If the system is intact, if the lesson designs are properly structured, if student engagement is consistently taken to authentic and meaningful levels, if expectations are maintained, if higher level thinking skills are demanded by the teachers and the lesson content...WHY IS IT A FLUKE THAT SUCCESSFULL LEARNING HAPPENS?
As you continue to read Perlstein's book, you are taken through the next year at Tyler. Do the teachers really believe the scores can be duplicated? Can the previous year's success be continued? Did the success happen accidentally or was it true that purposeful goal setting and deliberate lesson designs really worked?
Who really needs to be convinced that higher expectations work and that scores will continue to rise...the students...or the staff?
The book is actually fun to read because it is so real without being overly slanted toward one opinion or another.
And it's human.
Every principal will relate to Tina McKnight as she struggles with issue that only another principal can appreciate...unused vacation time, late hours, missed meals, school uniforms not delivered in time for the start of school, and beer bottles left on the playground after weekend ballgames.
Teachers will certainly appreciate the inner dilemma of Alia who wants to be nice again but can't seem to stop feeling like a bitch. Anyone who's sat through a student assembly will cringe along with the staff as the kids dance to music with "questionable" lyrics.
And how can you not chuckle and roll your eyes when in the midst of everything else going on in her school, McKnight is told she needs to be sure and answer her phone before the third ring and return messages within 24 hours. Afterall, we have to feed the bureaucrats something along the way.
Oh, but wait...like any good story, all of the above are merely sub-plots that run through the book. What every educator reading this book is going to understand is that the real story is gradually developing around the mysterious character lurking in the shadows - AYP.
Annual Yearly Progress - that fly-in-the-ointment-devil-in-the-details-potential-spoiler becomes the on-going mystery. It isn't the gains made in a single year that matters. It's gains made from one year to the next. So now that Tyler has had a successful year, they have also raised their own bar and must now show progress even beyond that.
Picture the pole vaulter who jumps 12 feet his first year. The next year he jumps 14. That 2 foot gain is remarkable. The next year he jumps 14'3". While he's maintained and improved, it's only a 3" gain for the year versus a 2'3" compared to two years ago. But you can't compare to two years ago. Does that diminish the accomplishment?
That's the quandary - the mystery of the story, if you'll allow me to put it that way. The jump Tyler Elementary makes from 17% to 90% at the start of the book cannot be matched. So the plot of the book can only go one of two ways: the scores drop and the story ends as a tragedy. Or the scores rise to, say...92%. Does a 2 point rise meet AYP? Is it cause for the same level of celebration as last year?
Sorry, no Spoiler Alerts here. You'll have to read the book.
Parents, teachers, administrators, even students will find the book interesting from whatever perspective and political influences you bring to the table. There's something for everyone here. It would make a great discussion starter for a faculty book study. It's a great eye-opener for potential teachers. It's a peek behind the closed doors of classrooms full of very real teachers trying their best to help very real children. This is no whitewash or softball toss...this is an honest book.
To my colleagues, read this book. You will find it to be either an affirmation to hang in there or a challenge try something new.
It's the perfect book for Halloween. High Stakes Testing is scary! For some the book will be a challenging trick, for others it will be a real treat.