Education Chat

Tested: One American School Struggles To Make the Grade

Author Linda Perlstein and teacher Mandi Rounds discussed testing and its impact on public schools.

September 20, 2007

Tested: One American School Struggles To Make the Grade

Linda Perlstein
, the author of Tested: One American School Struggles To Make the Grade and a former reporter for The Washington Post; and Mandi Milhoan Rounds, a third-grade teacher at Tyler Heights Elementary School in in Annapolis, Md.

Mary-Ellen Deily (Moderator):

Welcome to today’s live chat with Linda Perlstein, the author of Tested: One American School Struggles To Make the Grade, and Mandi Milhoan Rounds, one of the third-grade teachers prominently featured in the book. We’ve got a lot of good questions about testing and its impact on Tyler Heights Elementary School, the school at the heart of Ms. Perlstein’s book, so let’s get started.

Question from Lee R. McMurrin,Retired Supt., Milwaukee Public Schools:

Educating children is really not a foot race with a winner and a host of losers. So what do you think of labeling schools “failing” when you are only looking at a group of numbers?

Linda Perlstein:

I think it’s ridiculous, for so many reasons. I also think those numbers don’t always tell us much. The third-graders I write about, 90 percent passed the state test the year I was there. But their skills were so low, lower than that number shows, and they certainly weren’t better, more able students than the fifth-graders, who had a lower pass rate. By the way, Mr. McMurrin, I will be in Milwaukee, my home town, for a reading from Tested next Wednesday, Sept. 26. Details of that appearance and others on my upcoming book tour can be found at

Question from mike blake-asst. principal, nevada union high school:

how was time found for the staff to analyze the testing data, to develop strategies, and to implement the changes? people here are ready to face this challenge, but where can time be found in a large high school once the school year has begun?

Linda Perlstein:

Tyler Heights had the benefit, mainly because of funds allocated based on the school’s poverty, of many “resource teachers” who could spend time analyzing the data. State testing data was not particularly useful -- a big flaw, in my opinion -- but data from county and diagnostic tests throughout the year. Sometimes the numbers told teachers things about their students they didn’t already know; often it was not so helpful. Mostly the information was used to determine who was pulled out for interventions in reading and math.

Question from Demetria, 8th Grade Lang Arts Teacher, Roosevelt Sch 17 (Elizabeth, NJ):

This Q is directed to Ms. Rounds: what changes within your instruction/classroom did you specifically make that you feel helped contribute to your school’s turnaround?

Mandi Rounds:

Honestly, a lot of the turnaround happened before I ever walked in the doors at Tyler. I think it was helpful in my own classroom, though, that I was very realisitic in my expectations and tried to downplay the emphasis of the testing to the kids. I didn’t want them to feel the pressure that I knew they were under.

Question from Dianne Zemanek, Administration, Chatham school district:

Is there truly too much testing or is testing simply like stearing a boat you have to assess where you are and your surroundings to get you there. What metaphore would you use to describe testing in America today?

Linda Perlstein:

I’m not big on metaphors. But yes, I would say -- and Mandi would probably agree -- there’s too much testing. I do think tests can be a useful tool for instruction, of course. But besides the annual state test, which took several days, at her school there were about 10 county benchmark tests in reading and math, weekly tests in reading and math, and a neverending stream of practice tests to prepare kids for the benchmarks and state tests. And these weren’t always in the skills teachers felt their students needed to master most.

Question from Gabrielle Capone, Fordham Fellow (former teacher):

Many of those who are pro-NCLB are stating that this law “does not force schools to become test-prep factories.” My experience teaching in two schools under NCLB sanctions proves otherwise. However, standardized testing seems inevitable as a yardstick to measure a school’s progress or lack thereof. What, in your opinion, could be the “middle path” here? How could we balance accepting testing and yet accepting that children need whole and complete educations (especially when many of them come to us so far behind grade level already)?

Mandi Rounds:

Honestly, the way the law is currently written, I don’t know that there is a middle ground. It saddens me that we are being driven not by what we know to be good teaching methods, but by tests that often don’t test the most important concepts. I think if teachers and administrators were part of the process of making the tests and deciding what is on them, then more important concepts would be tested, and would be, therefore, more relevant to the things already being taught in the classroom.

Question from Mame Johnston, retired middle school educator from Wake County, NC:

How much reading for pleasure has been witnessed since the institution of NCLB? Is there a measured increase of worksheets rather than creative learning/writing?

Linda Perlstein:

I won’t blame this on NCLB -- in fact, a lot of problems in instruction today are not codified by the law but rather implemented by educators and (more often) their bosses. But yes, I think fewer kids read for pleasure, particularly those in classrooms bound by scripted reading curricula, pacing guides, a time schedule that leaves the teacher no time to read novels aloud, and so on. The numbing effect of child screen time doesn’t help. Learning phonics is crucial to giving kids the skills and confidence to attack books; I’m not slamming phonics. But kids need to know they are reading for a purpose beyond answering the test question. That purpose is imagination, knowledge, pleasure, etc. As for creative learning and writing: There is very little of it in many schools that have a ways to go on test scores and react with a test-focused curriculum.

Question from Estela Carrera-Infante, Parent Services Coordinator for Migrant Education Northwest ESD 189, Anacortes Washington:

As a parent educator I’m always looking for successes with parents. Did you get more parent participation and involvement and how did you engage your parents in this growth?

Mandi Rounds:

I wish I could say that we have more parent involvement. It has risen over the years, and I think part of that is because we have tried to include workshops where parents can work with their children and feel successful doing so. I think that many times parents feel intimidated by the school setting due to things they remember negatively from their own school experiences. We have tried to make parents feel welcome and comfortable in school, and I think that has helped a lot.

Question from Andrea Gralnick, Manager, Early Learning Coalition of Palm Beach County, Inc.:

Does this school have a preschool program? If so, what was used for accountability or to measure the success of the program?

Linda Perlstein:

There were two full-day pre-K classes, though there were enough interested families to have more, had more classes been funded. The students were evaluated but I’m not sure by what measure exactly. Here is how I measured the success of the program (and I have faith in this measure): Every time I went into those rooms, nearly all of the students were engaged and participating, and knew more than the last time I visited. When they got to kindergarten, they were far more able than the students who hadn’t gone to pre-K.

Question from Joe Tumino, Teacher:

Would it help if we had random testing system? If we don’t know when tests will be given, what grade, subject or even which kids will be tested, we won’t waste time on test prep

Mandi Rounds:

That thought has always crossed my mind and I think it would be better in many ways. The pitfall, though, is that many of the concpts on the tests themselves are not in the actual curriculum. Again, if teachers and administrators developed the tests based on state curriculum (even though it is said that the tests are based on state standards), it would work well.

Question from Derrick Bobbitt, Assistant Principal, Alliance Academy, Cincinnati, OH:

What were some of the programs or strategies the school implemented that resulted in so much student growth?

Linda Perlstein:

I can’t say exactly what made the percentage of students passing the state test rise -- since that is probably what you mean by “student growth” -- but I can explain some hallmarks of the school in the year (2005-06) I spent there: 1. Massive amounts of individual attention for struggling students. This involved not just managing their educations but, in some ways, their lives. This was awesome to watch. 2. Standardization. The curricula (Open Court and Saxon Math) were prescribed by the county, with daily pacing guides. The principal, too, had expectations for what she wanted to see in the classrooms. This worked well in areas where teachers didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, or needed the structure. It alienated more experienced teachers. Also it meant that a fourth-grader reading on a first-grade level still had to be pushed through the fourth-grade material. And that the principal’s supervisor expressed concern when teachers in the same grade had different numbers of words on their Word Walls. 3. Focus on the required curriculum and upcoming tests. Test-taking strategies -- or learning strategies, if you have a more generous definition -- were taught throughout the school and emphasized every day in all the work kids did. (Supporting your answer. Process of elimination. Test vocabulary.) Lots of practice tests. Very little time spent on things that were not in the basic Open Court program, Saxon Math. This means extension activities, social studies, science, writing aside from the brief-answer format required on the tests. 4. A standard behavior code throughout the building. Material incentives and parties for students who followed it, showed up, used their test-taking strategies, etc. 5. Reaching out to parents.

Question from Dan Thompson, Professor, Penn State University:

Can you talk about the influence of pre-service or student teachers on faculty or students at the school?

Linda Perlstein:

There were no student teachers the year I was at Tyler Heights. Many teachers, including Mandi, had done their student teaching not long before, and in general they thought it was a crucial part of their own learning process.

Question from Pam Zarpentine Title I Math Teacher Sherman, NY:

Do you feel that reading instruction is emphasized at the expense of other subjects

Mandi Rounds:

YES!!!! Actually, reading and math. Many times, Science, Social Studies, music, P.E., and other subjects are pushed under the rug for extra reading and math time. Don’t get me wrong- reading is essential to learning in all areas, however, I don’t feel that other subjects should be sacrificed. I honestly would rather lengthen the school day to include extra time for all subjects.

Question from Jane Beckett-Donohue, Retired PIO, Anne Arundel County Public Schools:

Are 3rd grade students at Tyler Heights reading more proficiently and performing at higher levels in math than they were before the enactment of NCLB?

Linda Perlstein:

Hi, Jane! Jane is the woman who made this book possible, by recommending me to the superintendent, who recommended me to the principal. Anyway, hers is a good question that I can’t answer fully, because I was not at Tyler Heights before NCLB. Certainly students performed much better on state tests over time. Teachers who were around pre-NCLB -- and it wasn’t many, because like many low-income schools there is high turnover -- say that the students can now answer certain kinds of questions better and have much better decoding skills but are far less interested in reading in general, and aren’t good writers. They give more credit in math.

Question from Julia Edwards, HR Specialist, Tulsa Public Schools:

With the advent of the NCLB testing, many teachers now coach their kids to pass the tests instead of teaching them based on accepted curriculum. while this may work in the short-term with getting schools to make a passing grade, how is this going to impact the student’s learning and ability to find answers for themselves later on?

Linda Perlstein:

Well, certainly teaching students formulaic answers to test questions they might encounter may help in the short term, but not in the long term. There’s a difference between teaching the basics they need as a scaffolding for the future and a furious focus on the upcoming tests -- a balance that not everyone knows how, or is encouraged, to strike.

Question from Marj Andresen, parent, Middle School PAC co-president:

What, if any, impact has NCLB focus on proficiency had on your higher performing students?

Mandi Rounds:

The higher performing students suffer because in most cases, we are forced to teach to the middle. Our school does have a Talent Development teacher, which is great, but she can only service children certain parts of the day. So, unfortunately, these kids are just as negatively impacted as the kids with special needs.

Question from Ron Sigler. Teacher, Midfield High School:

What is the greatest challenge you faced in achieving your goals?

Mandi Rounds:

It was very hard for me to conform to such a scripted curriculum where I felt that I had little say in what and how I was teaching. Things are not quite as cut and dry at my school as they were the year depicted in the book, but I still struggle with this.

Question from Gene Gousie, Trainer/Technical Assistance provider:

Your book was fascinating and well-written. The school board has a critical role in expectations that get pushed down to the school level because it hires the superintendent. Do you know of any school boards that have articulated a vision of the education they want for their children and hired a superintendent to achieve that vision in ways that are measured in more than test scores?

Linda Perlstein:

If anyone knows the school boards and superintendents who are not focused on test scores -- they all say, “It’s not about the scores,” but act otherwise -- please let me know about them.

Question from Clayton Stromberger, University of Texas Shakespeare-in-the-Schools Program:

Ms. Rounds: You are now the subject of a book that will no doubt serve as an inspiration and eye-opener for other teachers over the years. Are there any particular books about teachers -- or by a teacher -- that have made a difference in your own life and work?

Mandi Rounds:

Thank you for your kind words. Harry Wong was very influential for me as a beginning teacher. I’ve adopted many of his ideas and continue to look to him for inspiration.

Question from Maxine A. Smith, Graduayte student in Education:

My question to you is, since testing continues to be an issue in schools, should teachers teach to test or continue with the traditional teaching?

Mandi Rounds:

For me, this is a double edged sword. “Traditional teaching” to me is what I sat through as a child and is what I believe to be an ineffective teaching model. I think NCLB was originally written and adopted to phase out poor teaching. However, there are many teachers who pour their hearts and souls into lesson planning and to teaching in the most developmentally appropriate forms. They are committed to continued self-improvement and are open to adopting new teaching methods. This, in my opinion, is what teachers should be doing, not teaching to a test that educators didn’t even have a part in making. I think, ideally, educators should be making the tests and finding what they feel is the appropriate avenue for teaching these skills to children.

Question from Carole Kupelian retired from Altmar-Parish-Williamstown MS:

I know there are groups of retired professionals who offer off-site tutoring in the Annapolis area. Were you able to use any of their services? Were they helpful?

Mandi Rounds:

I honestly don’t know of any kids who were tutored outside of school. Many took advantage of our on-site afterschool program. Many times transportation isn’t availble for kids after school.

Question from Taurus Felton, Teacher, Rutledge Middle School:

How did you change the negative culture of your school to reach your academic goal(s)?

Mandi Rounds:

My academic goals are always simple- 1. Kids will learn and 2. Kids will love learning. I think going into the setting with an open mind and realisitc expectations helped me to help the children I worked with. It may sound silly, but humor is also an essential part of my teaching philosophy. Humor helps the environment and the learning process.

Question from Hayes Mizell, Distinguished Senior Fellow, National Staff Development Council:

Linda - Please discuss what role professional development played in the school’s reform. Was it qualitative more effective, or did teachers engage it differently than in the past, or was there simply more of it? As a result of its reform experience, did the school learn something important about professional development it did not know (or act on) previously? I hope you are well. Best regards, Hayes

Linda Perlstein:

Hi Hayes! Well, “professional development” can mean many things. Many of the teachers were in graduate school working toward higher degrees while they taught. They also, of course, attended various conferences (sometimes useful) and school system training sessions (not useful, at least not the many I witnessed), and some consultants came to the school (mixed bag). The school system was into the Professional Learning Community concept, but as far as I could tell that was just a concept; no matter how hard I try, I haven’t quite figured out what that *means* exactly.

Question from Ernst Schuberth, teacher, teacher training:

Is there any impact of NCLB on the social relationship between teachers and students, teachers and teachers, or students and students?

Mandi Rounds:

I know my relationship with my students is no different that it would be without NCLB. I must say, though, that there is a negative impact on the teacher-teacher relationship because we receive a bonus for making Adequate Yearly Progress based on the test scores. Some teachers get blamed for bad scores. Our school has made AYP the last few years, but I know fingers would be pointed if we didn’t and people didn’t get their bonuses. It puts a great deal of pressure on those of us who teach testing grades.

Question from Andrew J. Barling, M.A., Clinical Director, L/D/ Specialist:

What was the best way you achieved parental accountability and support for your students with SLD, RD, ADHD, etc.and did you ever get the school to apply FAPE as part of the NCLB law for office school site intervention that was not available at the school site?

Linda Perlstein:

Oh my, this question was probably supposed to go to Mandi. But I just wanted to post it to show how byzantine the acronyms and jargon are. To cut to the chase, there is almost no way for a school to achieve parental accountability. They can, however, work toward parental involvement, and Tyler Heights did its best -- through activities, phone calls, even the guidance counselor and principal going to the housing project when need be.

Question from David Carr, Associate Professor (Librarianship), UNC-Chapel Hill:

What are the likely effects of test-dominated experiences on the kinds of ADULT learners our children will become? How will they become life-long independent learners? How will they define “learning” for themselves and their own children?

Linda Perlstein:

I hear from college professors that they are receiving students who are strapped into the concept of one-right-answer, have trouble thinking critically, don’t write well. I can see where this comes from.

Question from C. Stewart Stafford, Educational Technologist, Bowley Elementary School:

Do you have any suggestions on how we can educate the public, including politicians, to realize there are more effective means of assessments than testing? Thanks...

Mandi Rounds:

Mail your congressman and senator a copy of Tested! Just kidding. Honestly, parents are the first step, I think. If parents see what’s happening and take a stand, they will be heard. Parents need to take an active role in their children’s education and let their voices be heard. I think teachers also need to stand up for themselves, but sadly, they never do.

Question from S.O.; Doctoral Student; TWU:

Why is it that so many schools today base the children’s grades for passing and failing their grade level on standardized tests, particularly @ 4th grade (ex: Leap test) And why are so many schools teaching tests instead of teaching the regular curriculum in an effort to raise their children’s test scores?

Mandi Rounds:

My school doesn’t base grades on the standardized test at all- they actually don’t even get back to us until the school year is over. I’m actually appauled to hear that some schools are doing that. As far as what teachers are teaching goes- there is a very heavy hand laid on us daily about what to teach. If you read Linda’s book, she uses very good examples of our this. We aren’t given much room to decide what we teach, and teachers who stray are lookied down upon. It’s a sad reality.

Question from Robin Chait, Senior Education Analyst, Center for American Progress:

Do you conclude that your findings are typical of the experiences of other similar schools? If so, what leads you to that conclusion?

Linda Perlstein:

I think some things were particularly intense at Tyler Heights but in general typical. What leads me to that conclusion? A decade of sitting inside classrooms and schools. E-mails from teachers all over the country thanking me for writing what they see as their schools’ stories too.

Question from Davida Gatlin, Fordham Fellow (former teacher):

I believe that policymakers genuinely have good intentions when they are creating laws like NCLB. I also believe that school officials and teachers have the best intentions when it comes to implementing those laws. What can be done to address the disconnect between creation of laws at the federal and state levels and the implementation of those laws at the district and school level that is creating a negative culture towards school reform?

Linda Perlstein:

I, too, believe the intentions are good all around. (I don’t ascribe to the conspiracy theory that NCLB was created solely to discredit the public schools, though I understand why people believe that.) The only way to address the disconnect is for policymakers and politicians to stop pretending they know what goes on inside classrooms and for educators to stop being afraid to talk about what goes on inside classrooms. Whatever bureaucratic and political complications have led to a climate where the people who know the most won’t talk honestly, and the people above them won’t listen, must go away.

Question from Margaret Sorensen, PhD Candidate, Walden University:

We hear so much about negatives associated with testing. Do you think that there truly are kinder, gentler, or more effective ways to spur needed reform in schools?

Mandi Rounds:

I do think that teachers should be held accountable. I do not, however, think that test scores say anything about the qualifications of a teacher. I also don’t think that the tests we are currently giving give an accurate portrayal of the learning going on in schools or what children really know. Teachers should be randomly observed by their supervisors to ensure good teaching is going on. I’m not saying that all tests for students should be eliminated, but the tests should be more frequent and more relevant examples of learning for an individual student over time.

Question from Walt Gardner, education writer:

How do you respond to those who ask why more public schools serving disadvantaged students aren’t duplicating the success stories documented in “It’s Being Done” by Karin Chenoweth?

Linda Perlstein:

I haven’t read Karin’s book. And I don’t proclaim anything a success story unless I’ve witnessed it. But that’s neither here nor there. On the broader question, I don’t think it’s so simple to “duplicate success stories,” and I’ll illustrate with one element. Take Tyler Heights, to the extent it stands as a success story. The school has a principal who works six days a week, at least 12 hours a day. Superheroes are often at the heart of these stories. Can you duplicate that?

Question from John Kleman, Grandparent:

It must be assumed that any successful effort for educational reform must include in its foundation a robust and grade appropriate curriculm administered by competent teachers. How is this possible when teaching excellence is shackled by bargaining agreements, demoralized, and underpaid because teaching incompetence is overpaid, tolerated, and protected by unions and tenure?

Linda Perlstein:

The vast majority of teachers I have witnessed in my decade covering schools are competent or better -- often considerably better. I do believe in some form of merit pay, though not based solely, primarily or even significantly on student test scores. I do not have an answer for how that can be done, particularly one that would please union officials; sorry. I am a supporter of unions. I do think the unions must do better in empowering their teachers to explain to the world what does and doesn’t work in their classrooms. I’m all for firing bad teachers. But I can’t say I know any teachers who are overpaid.

Question from Sally, Elementary teacher, Miami Dade County Public Schools:

I don’t mind testing because we need a tool that measures students performance, but we have become data driven crazy. Right now we are facing a dilemma with the Science Series. Teaching is out the door. WHY DO DISTRICTS FEEL THE NEED TO NOW TELL TEACHERS THE EXACT MATERIAL TO TO TEACH IN SCIENCE? ARE WE TRYING TO EDUCATE CHILDREN TO BE WEEL-ROUNDED OR ONLY KIDS THAT CAN SHOW GOOD RESULTS ON A TEST? Where is the research that backs up the reasoning behind so much testing?

Mandi Rounds:

I know how you feel! That’s how I feel about all subjects I teach! I think maybe part of the craze is because our government feels pressure to rank with other nations. I don’t honestly feel like kids are even thought about in the process- it seems that as of now, test scores are what matter to the powers-that-be.

Question from Darla Marburger, President, SabiaWorks:

Barring a change in funding, what tools or actions are most needed to turn around an underperforming school? And how to you keep kids from missing out on quality education in the process?

Linda Perlstein:

Great teachers, given the freedom to do great things. A committed, engaged, imaginative principal. Buy-in from parents. A sense for children that all of this MATTERS. Unfortunately, you can’t buy that stuff at the mall.

Question from Andrea Cortes Eastlund, teacher, Emerson Spanish Immersion School:

What is the impact of testing on creating curriculum? Did you see teachers delivering curriculum to do better in tests? Is this contradictory with following curriculum?

Linda Perlstein:

At Tyler Heights, for example, the Open Court curriculum didn’t necessarily match what and how would be tested on Maryland’s annual assessment. So the Tyler Heights staff spent a lot of time figuring out how to squeeze everything in and still keep to the pacing guides.

Question from Alberta Proietta, Community Academy of Philadelphia Charter School, Teacher Trainer:

Did you experience any interference by attorneys acting as parent advocates who wanted to pressure the school to make changes to policies and procedures already in place.

Mandi Rounds:

No, thank goodness! Sadly, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I don’t think a lot of parents know what goes on in schools. I don’t just mean parents at my school, but parents in general. Maybe if they were more vocal things would change.

Question from Velma Yoder, Assoc Professor:

What was the cost personal and economic to become a school of reform?

Mandi Rounds:

Personally, I had to give up many of my ideals and teach a formatted, one-siz-fits-all curriculum. I think my students gave up a lot of hands-on learning time and time to read independently.

Question from Kathy Brown, Parent, Warner Robins, Ga.:

What if we inadvertently are promoting learned helplessness by simply pouring millions of dollars into schools that have difficulty achieving adequate aceademic success? What if entire states see economic gains because the student performance is less than adequate,or because of being poor? What if poor and ignorant populations are simply viewed as functional parts of society? Who will stand up and speak out?

Linda Perlstein:

I am not sure what you mean by this. States don’t have economic gains because students are poor or do poorly. But I want to take this opportunity to add on to Mandi’s comment that “My school doesn’t base grades on the standardized test at all- they actually don’t even get back to us until the school year is over.” Readers, are the tests in your state a giant secret? Are teachers prevented from seeing the graded tests so they can learn what they children were and weren’t able to do? If so, complain, and complain loudly. This is a horrible shame. The law states that useful data from the test is supposed to be used in academic decision-making, but the secrecy surrounding the test prevents this. It’s completely inane. And the argument that this would compromise security is foolish. Teachers already get to see the tests, when they give it.

Question from Richard Hull, Director, Fairless Local Schools:

What percentage of students would you estimate are behind or struggling because of a failure of the school district to provide adequate instruction, and what percentage are behind because they need services to address non-academic barriers involving social, emotional and behavioral problems related to non-academic stress.

Mandi Rounds:

I don’t think any of my students are struggling due to a lack of instruction. A good number, though, I’d say at least 1/3 are struggling due to non-academic barriers. the children at my school have one huge obstacle- and it’s life in general.

Mary-Ellen Deily (Moderator):

That’s all the time we have for today. Thanks so much to Linda Perlstein and Mandi Rounds, and thanks to all the readers for their thoughtful questions. The transcript will be posted shortly on

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