One doesn't have to look far for controversy surrounding the current emphasis American schools place on testing. From the first standardized tests administered at the elementary level to the dreaded SATs, many parents and high-schoolers recognize that these tests may make or break teens' chances at securing spots at their colleges of choice. Two April novels touch on key ramifications of this focus on testing, including the resulting anxiety of students; the potential for diminished lack of creativity in the classroom; the pressure on teachers and administrators, who are held accountable for their students' performances on tests; and even the effect a school's standardized test results can have on local real estate values. Both penned by former teachers, the novels are Edward Bloor's Story Time, due from Harcourt, and The Report Card by Andrew Clements, to be published by Simon & Schuster.
Bloor's tale centers on two youngsters who are accepted into Whittaker Magnet School, a middle school for gifted students that boasts the highest standardized-test scores in the U.S. The school is housed in the dark basement of the county library, where students follow a test-based curriculum, taking daily tests in every subject, and drinking foul protein shakes meant to improve their performance. Bloor, author of Tangerine and Crusader and executive editor for Harcourt School Publishers, has taught on both the middle school and high school levels. He laments educators' loss of freedom to shape a stimulating curriculum. "When I was teaching 20 years ago, testing was not viewed as it is today, and I was free to focus on books and activities that I liked," he said. "My wife, who taught then and is still teaching now, has seen an entire evolution to the point that she can do little enrichment in her classroom and must teach test-taking skills. And I see the effects in my own family. I have a 17-year-old daughter who loves to read and a 12-year-old son who hates to. He'll only read books based on the number of points his teacher gives him for reading them. The test has become the curriculum and we're producing test-takers rather than learners. It's a change that I see as absurd."
Bloor described Story Time as "one-third satire, one-third ghost story and one-third conventional story about kids landing in a school that they hate. I see [the story] as darkly amusing—a cautionary tale about the road we're going down. I don't think we are too far from Whittaker Magnet School in the real world today."
Harcourt has a 30,000-copy printing on order for this novel and is targeting librarians, educators and booksellers with its promotional campaign. Bloor will travel to IRA in May, ALA in June and NCTE in November. Barbara Fisch, associate director of publicity for Harcourt Children's Books, noted that "booksellers have responded positively to this book. I think they see how big a fan base Ed has among teachers and kids—and the subject is, of course, quite a touchstone. As for publicity, the timing of this book couldn't be better, since education is certain to be a topic among the candidates in this election year and many take issue with President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act." She added that at Harcourt they see "potential for pick-up beyond the book page," since articles on school testing have appeared in many venues and, in her words, "Obviously, Ed has a clear opinion on its effects."
As does Andrew Clements, whose The Report Card introduces Nora, a fifth-grade genius who, in her quest to hide her intellectual prowess, intentionally receives average scores on standardized tests—going so far as researching on the Internet how many questions she should miss to accomplish this. But when she witnesses how disappointing test scores affect her best friend's self-confidence and his level of anxiety about academic performance, Nora makes a statement by intentionally earning Ds on her report card, botching an IQ test (though she still scores sky-high) and landing zeros on classroom exams.
Clements, who in his seven years as an educator taught a range of ages, from fourth grade to high school, remarked that he did not consciously plan the theme of the book. "I began the novel with the notion of writing about a very intelligent child, one who is way off the charts, the kind of student teachers do encounter, though rarely. It is not uncommon for kids who are this intelligent to hide how smart they are since they don't want to be singled out as unusual or special—or be pushed ahead."
Then, while making a school visit, the author overheard a teacher confiding in a colleague. He recalled, "She said how she hated having to prepare her students for tests, since their faces tense up and they begin fretting about taking the tests. She said she'd much rather be spending classroom time on other things but had no choice. I began thinking what the very intelligent girl might do when she saw what standardized tests did to her average friend. So my story took a different turn."
Noting that the subject of test preparation in the classroom is "a very hot topic, especially within the context of No Child Left Behind," Clements explained that he tried to avoid making his novel turn into a polemic against testing. "I know that there have to be standards and there are basics that everyone should know," he said, "yet the means of achieving this goal is getting muddied, especially when teacher evaluations are pegged into student performance. Not only is there pressure on students but there is great pressure on teachers, since their livelihoods now depend on how well their students perform. What I hope that The Report Card will do is provide a safe way for kids, parents and teachers to talk about the subject within the context of this fictional experience."
Clements, whose earlier novels for children—including Frindle, The School Story and A Week in the Woods—have sold a combined two million copies, will soon embark on his first national tour to promote The Report Card, for which the publisher plans a 100,000-copy first printing. Michelle Montague, director of marketing for trade, S&S Children's Publishing, reported, "Andrew has won many children's choice state awards—Frindle alone won 22 and was nominated for 19 others—and made an effort to travel to accept as many of those as he can. He has frequently visited schools and has been a speaker at educational and library conferences, but we wanted to increase his exposure to booksellers and to children themselves."
To this end, Clements will visit bookstores in seven major markets in April and May. S&S has created a retail floor display that holds six copies of The Report Card and six paperback copies of A Week in the Woods, as well as a free-with-purchase CD featuring a video interview with Clements, print excerpts from both books and a biography of the author. The publisher will also release its first teacher's guide covering all of Clements' novels.
On the question of the future of test-based curricula, Bloor expressed some hope. "I think things will swing back [to a more teacher-controlled curriculum]," he responded. "I hope we will start to validate the talents of kids who are not good test takers—the kids who are the artists and creative thinkers of tomorrow and are not just regurgitators."
Clements struck a somewhat cautionary note, pointing out that the pressure kids experience to perform is hardly new—and doesn't always come from politicians or school administrators. "It wasn't unusual, back when I was teaching in the 1970s, to encounter parents of fourth-graders who were already talking about what college their kids were going to," he said. "Unfortunately, this is not science fiction."