There’s a long history behind the nine days of standardized testing that my son Zachary took during his fourth-grade year. Perhaps the story starts in 1916 with John Dewey’s Democracy and Education. Or I could begin with 1983, the year of A Nation at Risk, and the birth of the standards movement. I might choose to commence my narrative sometime in 2013, when our school superintendent decided that the children field-testing the PARCC this year would also benefit from one last go-round with the MCAS. I think, however, I’ll start in January 2002, with No Child Left Behind and George W. Bush.

1) There are 180 days in Zachary’s school year. He will spend five of those days taking the MCAS and four days taking the PARCC. What percentage of his school year will Zachary dedicate to taking standardized tests? Show or explain how you arrived at your answer. (Don’t count test prep days or time spent learning to write an essay to fit the rubric.)

In January 2002—just a year into his first term—George the Younger signed his legacy into law in the form of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

People had been clamoring for educational standards for almost two decades. However, it’s hard to devise national educational standards in a country that goes out of its way to have two diametrically opposed sides on pretty much everything. I’m not sure why, but they decided that history standards were the place to start. The history of the United States is basically composed of people arguing with each other. It seems counterintuitive—or perhaps outrageously naïve—to think we’d all get together and agree on civil rights or the role of women just because we were looking at them in the rearview mirror.

In other words, ideology got in the way and the history standards became what they so eloquently refer to as a political third rail. That’s when George W. Bush came along. Elegantly swapping the word “accountability” for “standards,” he cooked up NCLB.

This legislation sought to fix the nation’s schools by pressuring superintendents and principals, who would in turn pressure the teachers, because clearly what was missing from the nation’s schools was adequate pressure on teachers. It was a sort of educational trickle down economics.

Principals were told that their schools must make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) for all student groups—minorities, the disabled, low-income students, English language learners—or there would be repercussions. “Repercussions” here means exactly what it means in your job, too. States were required to give students standardized tests in math and English Language Arts every year from third through eighth grade, and then once more for good measure in high school. Schools that failed for several years to make AYP in all of the subgroups could be reorganized (another one of those words that means the same thing in education as it does everywhere else), privatized, or turned into charter schools. In all those cases, the principal would find herself out of a job.

We weren’t a year into NCLB before teachers had begun to call it Every Child Left Behind.

2) “The purpose of this title is to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and reach, at a minimum, proficiency on challenging State academic achievement standards and state academic assessments.”

In the above quote from Title I, section 1001, Statement of Purpose from PL 107-110, the 2001 Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, commonly known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), what is the meaning of “standards”:

a) testing
b) assessments
c) evaluation
d) accountability

In theory, NCLB was supposed to fix failing schools. What it did, instead, was put so much emphasis on tests that the principals felt compelled to prepare students—not for life or high school or careers—but for the state tests. Idealistic concepts such as portfolio learning and music had to be shoved aside because, well, they weren’t on the tests.

Even successful schools felt the pressure, because “success” had such a narrow definition. Test scores had to be made public, ostensibly so that parents would know if they were in a failing school, as NCLB then gave them the option to remove their children and choose another school in the district. (Set aside here for a moment, if you will, the fact that you could probably tell if a school district was failing your child without the help of a standardized test.) However, NCLB could only remove so much inequity because the inequity exists across school district borders, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that inequity starts long before the classroom door. Schools that served the population NCLB was intended to help—poor, minority, and immigrant populations—were rolling the ball uphill from the start, and NCLB didn’t change that.

NCLB wasn’t written to target schools like Zachary’s, a well-maintained, adequately-sized elementary school in a well-to-do suburban neighborhood. His is the kind of school where conscientious third-grade teachers meet as a team with the art teacher to design a several-month, cross-curricular artist study project that will culminate in a fieldtrip to the Museum of Fine Arts; parents take notes while the literacy specialist explains how to encourage a culture of reading in the home; and the most oft-cited school-wide problem is people parking their minivans in the Blue Zone even though it is clearly marked “NO PARKING Drop-off/Pickup only 8:00-8:45 AM, 12:00-1:00 PM, 2:30-3:30 PM, Monday-Friday.” It’s almost a caricature of a good school in a good district.

When glossy magazines and area websites do their yearly lists, our school district is consistently among the top twenty in the state—even higher if you want to live commuting distance to Boston. The press bases these rankings on the test results of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), which are made public under the requirements of NCLB. People chose our pricey suburb because the schools are ranked so highly. Ever-rising test scores translate to ever-rising property values. Our principals, superintendent, and teachers all know they are being judged based on the scores, and the teachers have no choice but to tailor their teaching to the subjects they know will be on the exams. Even the parents have begun to believe that these assessments are a valid marker of which of the thirteen district elementary schools is the best of the best, and they will complain if too much time is spent on art.

Zachary’s school—like every other public school in our town and in the nation—is fully immersed in the culture of testing.

In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education released a report called A Nation at Risk, decrying the state of education in the United States. The report found that American academic standards had fallen steadily over the past few decades, with not enough homework, low expectations, and far too little preparation for careers or college.

That same year, I was at risk from an abusive stepmother and a negligent father. My standard of living had fallen steadily over the past five years. I was now routinely starved, beaten, and locked out in the cold. I had tipped over the point of no return from risk to crisis.

My teacher recognized the signs of abuse. My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Ziperstein, contacted social services and insisted on an investigation, despite my family’s protestations that everything was fine.

3) In the second paragraph, what does the word “routinely” mean?

a) Every now and then
b) As part of everyday life
c) Sometimes
d) All the time

4) Which sentence or phrase from the above passage best demonstrates Mrs. Ziperstein’s Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP)?

a) “Our teachers recognized the signs of abuse.”
b) “…not enough homework, low standards, and far too little preparation for careers or college…”
c) “My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Ziperstein, contacted social services and insisted on an investigation…”
d) Without any assessment scores, it is impossible to ascertain her AYP.

On January 20, 2009, I sat on the floor in the lobby of my sons’ preschool, with my infant in my arms, my toddler on my lap, and Zachary—then four—on the floor beside to me. We were surrounded by his classmates and their parents as we watched Barack Obama take the oath of office. It was a proud day in our fiercely liberal household, and Zachary, who had come to vote with me, was overjoyed that our guy had won. He had no idea what that meant, but his mother had said this guy would safeguard women’s rights, clean up the air, and possibly leap tall buildings in a single bound.

That morning, I was more than happy; I was relieved. Sure, other people’s kids had suffered under NCLB. Those parents had watched the tests take over their schools while music and history and science were marginalized because they weren’t on the test. They had been frustrated by six years of their kids’ teachers teaching to the tests. Yes, there were indeed children who had lost their entire elementary school experience to NCLB. But now? Now Hope had come to town. Surely, Obama would make repealing NCLB an early priority, and by the time my precious offspring went to kindergarten in the fall, we’d be back to using our schools to educate our children.

I wasn’t alone in my expectation. Even before Obama was officially president, the National Education Association was hailing his promise. “President-elect Obama views children as citizens of the world, not just standardized test scores,”[1] they wrote on January 8, 2009, in a press release they may have forgotten to take down and hide in later years.

At first, the outlook did indeed seem positive. The new Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, went on a Listening and Learning tour right out of the box. What he listened to and—presumably—learned, was that NCLB wasn’t working. “Many teachers complain bitterly about NCLB’s emphasis on testing,” he told the press. “Principals hate being labeled as failures. Superintendents say it wasn’t adequately funded. And many parents just view it as a toxic brand that isn’t helping children learn.”[2]

Soon, however, we started hearing rumblings about a Race to the Top, which reads like an allusion to that crazy race where participants run up 1,576 steps to the top of the Empire State Building. We weren’t really sure what this Race would entail, but the Top sounded benign enough. Plus, Obama had NCLB in his crosshairs.

In 2010, he laid it all out for us. Instead of punishing schools, he was going to reward states. An active father, he’d paid attention to the articles on that advised him to offer positive reinforcement, not punishment. Race to the Top, it turned out, was an elaborate, $4 billion version of a potty-training sticker chart.

To comply with NCLB, school districts had committed to making all the children “proficient” in math and reading by the year 2014. By 2011, it had become pretty clear that wasn’t going to happen, all good intentions aside. Obama offered the states a deal: they could apply for waivers from NCLB. The waiver legislation was chock-full of nice words, like “flexibility” and “remove obstacles.” Teachers appreciate flexibility, because on any given day they are trying to herd twenty-four cats. The waivers would take away the onerous AYP towards “proficiency,” replacing it with rewards for setting goals for “college and career readiness,” provided the states came up with a good plan for reaching those goals.

Forty-five states applied for waivers. That’s 45 states that wanted to ditch NCLB. One wonders why the remaining five states didn’t.

What too few of us realized at the time was that Race to the Top was NCLB in sheep’s clothing. On steroids.

We should have realized it, had we been paying attention. Race to the Top states the emphasis on testing, right from the start, declaring: “To be eligible to compete, states must… not have any legal, statutory or regulatory barriers to linking data on student achievement or student growth to teachers and principals for evaluation purposes.”

With Race to the Top, in other words, we would no longer judge schools and principals based on how the students perform on standardized tests. Now, we’d use the tests to judge the teachers, themselves.

5) On December 14, 2012, a gunman entered a Connecticut elementary school. He gunned down twenty children, the principal, the school psychologist, a paraprofessional, a teaching assistant, and two teachers. The six women died trying to protect their students, while the rest of the staff hid and shielded more students. Use the drop-down menus to choose the numbers and the operation to form an equation that will determine how many students were saved by their teachers that day.

By the time my second son entered public school, it was clear that the Obama administration was committed to increasing the importance of standardized testing in our nation’s schools. The Constitution reserves the right to educate for the states, so the federal government has to be clever when it wants to push through some reform or agenda. It has to offer cash.

In order to get waivers from NCLB or—more to the point—apply for the $4 billion in Race to the Top funding, states needed to prove they had standards for career and college readiness. Now, of course the states could devise their own standards. If they really wanted to make a good impression, however, they would do better to adopt the Common Core Standards, a set of national standards for capabilities that children should be mastering in each grade, which Arne Duncan and Barack Obama had already given a gold star.

It’s kind of like when your mother used to tell you that you could make up your own mind about whether to stay home and visit with your sick grandmother or to put on a halter top and a miniskirt and go to the kegger at the quarterback’s house on Saturday night.

So, here’s the math. We now had a requirement to evaluate teachers based on standardized test scores plus a brand-new, almost nationwide curriculum. That equals new assessments—better exams—to evaluate how well each and every little teacher on the ground is teaching the Common Core each year.

Again, since the states control education, it’s really up to them. However, if they wanted to be in with the cool kids, rather than sitting at the loner table during lunch, they could join one of two consortiums that were writing tests, consortiums that were, incidentally, awarded federal funds to develop the new tests. Massachusetts chose the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). Children in our school and throughout the state would take a series of PARCC tests throughout each school year.

6) According to the standard model, the Higgs boson is:

a) A new form of assessment.
b) A carrier particle that allows particles to interact with the Higgs field and attain mass.
c) What happened in the split second just after the Big Bang.
d) Science, and therefore not on the test.

Since the new assessments would be administered on computers, the company that developed and would make money from the PARCC, Pearson, needed to test the tests. On actual kids.

Like Zachary.

In the spring of 2014, classrooms across the nation started field-testing the PARCC. The field test didn’t count towards any evaluation of teachers or schools, and school districts could opt out of the old standardized tests for those classes taking the new ones. Our superintendent felt we still needed scored tests, so he opted to keep the MCAS in addition to the PARCC. I want to believe it’s because he feels there’s some educational benefit to the process.

Zachary’s class was chosen to spend two days in April and two days in June taking the PARCC. They prepared for this by spending three days in March taking the English and Language Arts MCAS, and they used the break in May to take two days of the Math MCAS.

As long as his college or career involves spending 5% of his time taking tests, this kid will be ready.

—Emily Rosenbaum


[1] “No Child Left Behind cemented as failed education legacy of President Bush.” National Education Association. January 8, 2009.

[2] Bruce, Mary. “’No Child Left Behind’ Overhaul in Sights of Obama Administration.” ABC News. September 24, 2009.


rosenbaumEmily Rosenbaum has worked as a speechwriter and taught writing at several universities. Her publications include Prime Number, Glamour, Motherlode at The New York Times, Kveller, Bitch, Skirt, the Ms. Magazine blog, and Brain, Child. Her books are Cooking on the Edge of Insanity and Princess Wishes and Monorail Dreams. Her play, Calypso’s Corner, will be produced at Open Book Theatre in Southgate, MI, in May 2016. She holds a doctorate in American Literature from the University of Chapel Hill at North Carolina.

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