April 7, 2002

The Test Mess


It was late February, and Dee O'Brien was preparing her eighth-grade students for the New York State English language arts exam, which would be administered the following week. O'Brien teaches English at the Hommocks Middle School in the Mamaroneck school district, a comfy corner of the Westchester suburbs. She is not exactly a traditionalist: the kids were sitting in a big circle, and they all talked excitedly at once, addressing her as ''Dee.'' This is not quite the way I remembered junior high, but in recent decades a highly progressive species of education, with interdisciplinary units and history fairs and do-it-yourself science projects, has become an upper-middle-class suburban birthright.

And here O'Brien was drilling her kids to prepare for a test obviously designed for -- well, there was no very delicate way to put it. Matt Szabo, a well-groomed kid with wire-rimmed specs and a black-and-white-striped rugby shirt, put this thought as circumspectly as he could: ''They give this test all over the state, and we might be smarter than another county, so they have to make it at a level where everyone's going to understand it.''

New York's eighth-grade E.L.A. exam, which requires students to listen to a lengthy passage and answer questions and write an essay about its central themes and details, to answer questions about written passages and also write two other essays, is well regarded in the testing world; but nobody in the class, including O'Brien, considered it an intellectually worthwhile exercise. O'Brien just wanted to get back to ''Romeo and Juliet.'' The kids complained that the recited passages were too boneheaded to inspire the required three-page essay; they were doing their best to fill up the pages with material that wasn't too transparently irrelevant. The overall emotional climate of O'Brien's class consisted of a peculiar combination of condescension and acute anxiety. When O'Brien told a story about students last year leaving themselves no time for the ''independent essay,'' there was a collective ''Omigod.'' After about an hour of this teeth-gnashing, O'Brien was ready to move on, but the kids wanted to practice the multiple-choice section one more time. ''Dee,'' one of the students called out, ''can you time us?''

Just about every eighth grader at Hommocks, and just about all of their teachers, are dismayed about the state-mandated tests, which include not just English but math, science, social studies and foreign language. Over in Scarsdale, the wealthier suburb next door, the moms are fighting mad; last year, more than half of the eighth-grade parents took their children home when the tests were given. Indeed, in Scarsdales and Mamaronecks all over this great land, educators and parents and, of course, kids are fulminating over a regime of state-administered testing that has now become nearly universal. They believe, of course, in ''standards'' -- the very essence of their culture is high achievement -- but they do not like the content of the tests, the number of tests, the way the tests have distorted the curriculum, the way they are scored, the way they are used to judge students, teachers, schools and real-estate value. And they feel as if life is pressured enough as it is; why, now, this?

It is, to be sure, highly premature to predict an uprising of the soccer moms. For at least the last decade, few promises have had more appeal to middle-class voters than ''I will raise standards.'' And in December, Congress overwhelmingly passed President Bush's education bill. The new law has some very important provisions designed to increase the number of certified teachers and to promulgate phonics-based reading instruction, but at its core there is a requirement that all states devise standards for English and math and institute tests in Grades 3 through 8 to see that the standards are being met. ''Standards-based reform'' has thus become the central thrust of federal education policy, as it already was in most states. And evidence has begun to accumulate that low-performing students and schools have higher test scores in the face of more rigorous expectations.

The prospect is for an increasingly stiff dose of testing; and yet the politics of the situation are by no means obvious. The test critics are forever citing the supposed damage that standards-based reform wreaks not only on their own children but also on disadvantaged students. But Amy Wilkins, a policy analyst for the Education Trust, an organization that strongly backs testing as a tool for bringing equity to the schools, says that she finds it infuriating ''to hear the soccer moms say these tests are bad for black children.'' On the other hand, she recognizes the political power of affluent suburbanites. The backlash, Wilkins prophesies, ''is only beginning.'' In February, New Jersey's commissioner of education, William L. Librera, acting on a promise made to voters by the state's new governor, James E. McGreevey, announced the elimination of several mandated tests in Grades 4, 8 and 11. The governor of Virginia, Mark Warner, also vowed in last year's race to modify the state's ''standards of learning''; suburban voters are still waiting for him to make good. ''Too much testing'' is a bandwagon that has only begun to roll.

The United States has never had an ''educational system''; what it has had is 15,000 or so school districts, which decide more or less for themselves how and what to teach and what students need to learn in order to move from grade to grade, or to graduate. This nonsystem system has preserved the autonomy of schools and school districts, but it has also had the effect of ensuring that while communities that demand high educational standards have schools that reflect them, communities that care about football get football and communities too careworn or hapless to make demands at all get very little, unless they are lucky.

Americans pretty much took this self-perpetuating system for granted until about 20 years ago, when a series of alarming studies, above all the 1983 report ''A Nation at Risk,'' called attention to how far American students lagged behind the rest of the developed world in virtually all subjects. The difference was quantified easily enough: students in other industrialized nations were taking a far more rigorous academic program than were typical Americans. Our competitors had not only a different kind of academic culture but also a different system. Most had either a prescribed national curriculum or highly specified national standards, with end-of-the-year exams to test whether students had mastered the prescribed material.

The distinctive American answer to this problem was standards-based reform, a not particularly coordinated effort by individual reformers, institutions and states to articulate the academic standards that children should be reaching and then to devise tests aligned with those standards and ''accountability'' measures to attach consequences to success or failure. Although the most straightforward solution to poor academic achievement might well have been the same kind of national curriculum that seems to work well elsewhere in the world, it became plain early on that our own answer would be neither national nor curricular. The first President Bush tried, and failed, to promulgate a voluntary national curriculum; President Clinton tried, and failed, to create a series of voluntary national tests. (Neither even contemplated a mandatory national system.) And so the action came at the state level. Starting in the mid-80's, individual states, including Texas and California, began to create their own systems of standards or ''curriculum frameworks,'' though in most cases these were pitched at a level of generality that made them close to useless. By now, virtually every state has developed its own version of standards-based reform. Yet according to a recent study by the American Federation of Teachers, none of them have yet created a coherent system of standards, curriculum, tests and accountability measures. We have, in effect, 50 approximations of a European or Asian school system; the new Bush education law is intended not to knit them into one but to ensure that each of them operates in such a way as to improve student performance.

New York State is a good example both of the traditional system of autonomy and of the new ethos of high-standards-for-all. For decades, better students in New York had been graduating with a Regents diploma, which signified that they had passed the academic curriculum established by the state Board of Regents; others had received a ''local'' diploma, which meant they had satisfied bare-bones requirements. In recent years, only 20 percent of New York City students who graduated received a Regents diploma. This meant that an elite slice of kids was being prepared for college, while the rest -- and above all minority students -- were being coaxed through school on a diet of ''business math'' and the like. These students were graduating from high school hopelessly unprepared for the demands of the modern workplace. In 1997, the Board of Regents, which oversees education in the state, agreed to phase in a requirement that all students take Regents courses and pass the exams in the major subjects. The Regents would thus become an ''exit test'' for high-school graduation. At the same time, the state concluded that the only way to end this two-track system was to specify academic standards from elementary school. The Regents approved standards in each grade in the major subject areas.

Tests in math and English language arts in the fourth and eighth grades were administered for the first time in 1999. The initial numbers were grim: only 48 percent of fourth graders passed the English language arts test, though the numbers were higher in math. The test-score rankings were almost indistinguishable from the socioeconomic scale, with wealthy suburbs on top and the big cities on the bottom.

In Mount Vernon, a formerly Italian and now heavily black suburb of New York City, not far south of Scarsdale and Mamaroneck in Westchester County, the students managed to do even worse than their demographics would have suggested: only 36 percent of fourth graders and 24 percent of eighth graders passed the E.L.A. test. The year before, the town hired a new superintendent, Ronald Ross, the first black chief administrator in the city's history; he seized on the dreadful statistics and the sense of anger and humiliation they provoked as a lever to force change in the schools. He won a 10 percent increase in the school budget, and he used the new money to hire assistant principals for the elementary schools, thus freeing principals to focus on the classroom; and he hired a reading specialist, Alice Siegel, from the public-school system in affluent Greenwich, Conn.

Ross decided to concentrate his attentions initially on the fourth grade in one school, the Longfellow School, where 13 percent of children had passed the E.L.A. test. And here, too, Ross used the shocking results for his own purposes. When teachers bridled at change, Ross, an imperious figure with a misleadingly whispery voice, said: ''You can leave, or you can try it my way. Why can't we try it your way? Because your way got 13 percent.'' He and Siegel replaced what had passed for the curriculum with a single-minded focus on the skills required for the test -- which is to say that they decided to explicitly teach to the test. ''The longer and more difficult way,'' Ross says, ''would have been 'Let's decide what to teach.' We never had to have that debate. We analyzed the entire New York State test, and we said, 'What are the broader areas that this test looks at?' ''

The academic value of this exercise depends, of course, on whether the test assesses skills important for a fourth grader to master. There seems to be a very wide consensus that the E.L.A. test does just that. Last year's reading comprehension portion, for example, asked students to read both a story and a poem about a whale and expected them to chart the chronology of the story, to understand the imagery of the poem and to write an essay using information from both. The ''listening'' portion of the test expected students to take notes as they listened to another story and to provide both short answers and a longer essay demonstrating that they understood the narrative.

What does it mean to prepare for such a test? Siegel instituted a policy in which every child would take home a book every night and read for at least 30 minutes; the children wrote in every subject, and the teachers drilled into them the difference between an essay that would earn a 4 on the E.L.A. test, indicating ''mastery,'' and one that would merit only a 3, for ''proficiency.'' They learned a graphic system for taking notes. They took lots of sample tests. And it worked: in 2000, Longfellow's pass rate on the English test made a staggering leap to 82 from 13. And since some of these changes had been made system-wide, overall half the fourth graders in Mount Vernon passed. The increase in math scores was almost as steep. And the improvement persisted: last year, 74 percent of students passed the English exam. Fourth graders in Mount Vernon outperformed many of the state's middle-class suburbanites, thus severing the link between socioeconomic status and academic outcome.

In New York, as in many other states, standards-based reform has done more for younger children than for older ones, who suffer the consequences of years of indifferent schooling. The principle certainly holds true in Mount Vernon, where a grand total of 20 percent of eighth graders in Mount Vernon passed the E.L.A. test in 2000. It's reasonable to hope that as the more successful fourth graders reach middle school, they'll do much better; if they don't, Mount Vernon's experiment will have failed. But in the meanwhile, Ross and Siegel have turned their attention to middle school. When I paid a visit to the Davis Middle School, one of Mount Vernon's two junior highs, the principal, Judith Kronin, told me that she had at first assumed that the children would improve their test scores if she assigned more reading and writing exercises. When that failed, it became obvious that the school had to try something new.

Kronin took me over to Mark Molina's eighth-grade English class, where the kids were sitting in the traditional configuration of rows and columns. It was about six weeks before the E.L.A. test, which is given later in eighth grade than in fourth and has much the same design, though of course pitched at a harder level. As I walked in, Molina, a bouncy young guy who keeps a pencil tucked behind his ear, was preparing the kids to write short answers about a sample test passage on Nepal. They talked about possible openings. One girl, Stacy, suggested the sentence ''Using details from the selection, I'm going to describe the geography of Nepal.'' Molina nodded and then added, ''Stay away from 'I.' But using 'The geography of Nepal,' there's another way. You could say, 'The geography of Nepal is,' and then you get in to describe it. Write this down, everybody.'' And on the blackboard, he wrote, ''The geography of Nepal is.'' Molina then gave the class 12 minutes to actually read the passage, which they hadn't yet done, and to write out a proper answer.

Meanwhile, I leafed through the class textbook. It was titled ''Aim Higher English Language Arts, Level H.'' The book was divided into sections: Test; Pre-test; Exam Overview; Listening, Reading and Writing; and Post-test. One chapter even included multiple-choice questions about the coming exam: ''Section 1, Part 1 of the English language arts exam deals mostly with. . . . '' I looked back up. Molina said, ''Five minutes, guys!''

Here was test preparation with a vengeance. The textbook was a training manual, and the curriculum was the test. This was just the kind of ''drill and kill'' exercise that progressive educators and pamphleteers describe as the inevitable consequence of a regimen of standardized testing. Nobody defends this kind of regimented pedagogy; advocates of standards-based reform insist that the best test preparation is the teaching of a rich curriculum; proponents actually agree with critics that tests that you can prep for aren't worth giving. ''There is no such thing as test preparation,'' as Diane Ravitch, one of the chief intellectual authors of the standards movement, said to me. ''The best preparation is to read Charles Dickens or George Orwell or other classic literature which has vocabulary you're not familiar with.'' That may be the ideal case, but it's not the reality. James Kadamus, deputy commissioner of the New York State Education Department, grudgingly conceded to me that test prep is probably ''the norm'' in failing districts.

It's a truth that might as well be acknowledged, if only because schools under the gun are going to adopt whatever seems like the most expedient policy in order to succeed. More important, test prep -- at least good test prep -- works. One morning I sat in on the weekly meeting of eighth-grade English teachers at Davis and listened as they talked about teaching kids to restate a test question, to take coherent notes, to distinguish between a detail and the general statement it supported. One teacher said that she had been working with kids on a story that contained words too archaic for them to recognize -- words like ''foe.'' When they finished, I asked the Diane Ravitch question: Why not just teach them Orwell and supply the vocabulary words? Alice Siegel said, ''What they're all saying is that with the skill level the kids came in with, we have to take the information and bring it down to their skill level.'' Most of these students were reading a few grades behind their own level. The fact that they probably couldn't have made sense of Orwell was the symptom, not the problem; the problem was that they had reached eighth grade without mastering the cognitive devices that better-educated children learn unconsciously, as a precipitate of their reading and studying.

It was an ugly form of pedagogy, and I said as much. Siegel is one of those intensely earthbound idealists who often make a home for themselves in the schools. She is a blond, brassy, Rosemary Clooney sort, and dogma makes her eyeballs roll. Now she said: ''It's the same thing as whole language and phonics. If you said that you wanted to teach phonics, they said that you hated children. With whole language, it was very nice. You sat there with a big book, and everybody sat there blah blah blah. But everybody needs to know how to attack a word they don't know how to pronounce.'' In the world of education, a great deal of moral power attaches to practices that are aesthetically appealing; but justice is very often better served by the merely effective.

Siegel will learn if she's right when the test results come back at the end of the year. Even if the kids do better, though, it's fair to ask whether the price has been too high -- whether all this test prep has killed whatever residual fondness the kids had for school or learning. Davis held a ''Saturday Academy,'' a euphemism for an extra two hours of voluntary test prep. The teachers insist, implausibly, that the kids show up well before 9 and wait for the doors to open.

I arrived early one cold morning, and there, indeed, were about 50 kids standing on Davis's grand front stairway. About 130 students in all eventually came -- almost a third of the grade. They walked into class, yakked with their friends, listened quietly while the teacher told them to underline important details in the story and then got to work on the short-answer portion of a sample test. I talked to a dozen or so kids during the break, and they all said that they came to Saturday academy voluntarily, and most of them said they liked it. The kids in Scarsdale could have been playing tennis, but these children had very little else to do on a Saturday morning. One girl, who kept her red ski jacket on all through the class, said that she so enjoyed the exercise of reading texts and learning to pull meaning out of them that she had started to read more on her own. Many of the kids were reading ''Harry Potter'' at home. And when they went over the short-answer questions, a good two-thirds of the kids scored 25 out of 25. I may be wrong, but I would have sworn they were having a good time.

The bipartisan enthusiasm that accompanied George W. Bush's education reform bill offered incontrovertible proof of the political appeal of standards-based reform. But many educators and academics view the standards movement as a catastrophic mistake and as a cynical ploy designed to distract attention from ''real'' reform. Progressive educators believe that neither children nor schools will or even should respond to externally imposed standards and reel in horror at the data-driven, goal-oriented pedagogy induced by the new testing regime. And civil rights advocates argue that it is both unjust and unrealistic to expect disadvantaged students to achieve higher standards until we spend more money on inner-city schools. As Richard Elmore, a Harvard professor of education, writes in the current issue of Education Next, a journal of school reform: ''Low-performing schools, and the people who work in them, don't know what to do. If they did, they would be doing it already. You can't improve a school's performance, or the performance of any teacher or student in it, without increasing the investment in teachers' knowledge, pedagogical skills and understanding of students.''

The issue is so profoundly ideological that it is very unlikely that it will be definitively settled by research data. And there is in any case a fierce debate over the data, especially in Texas, which President Bush has pointed to as proof that standards-based reform works. But one reason that the standards-and-testing element of the new education law found such broad support is that many independent scholars and experts have been persuaded that the system does work in Texas. A recent study by the RAND Corporation concluded that Texas and North Carolina, both of which have extensive and relatively longstanding systems of standards and testing, scored significantly better on the National Assessment of Education Progress, a widely regarded test of basic skills, than their demographic makeup would have predicted, and attributed the difference to a combination of prudent spending and standards-based reform. In last year's fourth-grade N.A.E.P. tests in math, black and Hispanic children in Texas outscored black and Hispanic students in every state in the country, while whites in Texas tied Connecticut for the top spot. (Eighth-grade Texans fall closer to the middle.) And of course the success of school systems like Mount Vernon's undermines the claim that the failures of bad schools are too deep-rooted to be seriously affected by the imposition of new standards (though Ronald Ross, Mount Vernon's superintendent, would agree with civil rights advocates that more spending is crucial).

The new federal law is designed to compel each state to develop its own coherent system of standards-based reform. The states have five years to devise standards and tests. They will be expected to raise all students to ''proficiency'' levels over the next 12 years, and they will have to administer the N.A.E.P. test every other year in order to provide an external check to their internal measures. But a combination of liberals worried about tests and conservatives worried about federal power blunted the law's bite. Nothing prevents states from designing wishy-washy standards and tests and from defining ''proficiency'' so modestly that everybody succeeds -- though Rod Paige, Bush's secretary of education, argues that the law's highly detailed reporting requirement will shame lagging states into cleaning up their acts. Some of the more ardent bearers of standards worry that the law will turn out to be an anticlimax. ''It will tip some states that are on the border of doing the right thing over into the camp of doing it,'' predicts Chester E. Finn Jr., a former Reagan administration education official. ''I don't think it will have any effect on the states that are completely clueless about all this or that don't want to or don't know how to.''

Let us stipulate, then, that the strong medicine of standards-based reform can act as a powerful tonic, at least when intelligently administered. The next question is ''Is it worth the side effects?'' And the answer appears to be ''It depends how sick you feel.''

Even in Mount Vernon, the teachers felt wistful about the sacrifice of good books, at least until after the test; but that sacrifice often seems intolerable to parents and teachers -- and children -- in schools where the issue is excellence, not competence. And here we come to the problem created by our nonsystem system, in which matters of teaching and curriculum in any given school or school district reflect not some broadly shared set of principles about schooling but the preferences and standards of that community. Schools that already consider themselves excellent bridle at the idea of being held to standards imposed by state education authorities, not only because it is a nuisance but because it seems pointless. The folks in Scarsdale rebelled only when the state added science and social studies tests in the eighth grade, thus forcing many teachers to miss well over a week of class time in order to prepare for, administer and grade the tests, and to curtail such beloved interdisciplinary, multiweek projects as ''the hurricane unit'' and ''the Colonial fair.'' One agitated parent said to me: ''We in Scarsdale have this state-of-the-art digital science equipment; but the science test used a triple-beam balance. Those triple-beam balances were put away many, many years ago. We had to take them out of the closet and refurbish them. My seventh grader was taught this year to use a triple-beam balance.'' The parents in Scarsdale have trouble understanding how they can benefit from standards lower than the ones they apply to themselves.

It is not always so clear-cut that the high-performing suburbs are superior to the test. Often the standards, and the tests, assume a kind of traditional pedagogy that has gone out of fashion, especially in liberal suburbs or university towns. Thus when Virginia instituted its ''standards of learning'' tests in 1998, the failure rate in the suburbs was almost as high as in the backwoods. Roughly 65 percent of students in the state failed the social studies test, which assumed detailed knowledge of dates, places and events. The state is now phasing in a rule accrediting schools when 70 percent of their students pass each test; the first year, 3 percent of state schools qualified for accreditation. Even in wealthy Fairfax County, the figure was only 7 percent. After an interval of shock and soul-searching, teachers realized that they would have to prepare students much more explicitly for the tests. Fairfax is now up to 80 percent; but Daniel Domenech, the county superintendent, says that the new focus ''has substantially diverted attention from a broader and richer curriculum.'' Exactly how unfortunate an outcome this is probably depends on your view of the kind of old-fashioned curriculum the Virginia tests assume. For example, the fifth-grade ''Reading/Literature and Research'' test expected students to be able to distinguish among rhyme schemes and recognize free verse. Is that so bad?

Whatever the merits of the case, Fairfax County parents appear to agree with their superintendent. Last year, Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster, convened focus groups of suburban parents for Mark Warner, the gubernatorial candidate. When he asked a general question about how things were going in the state, parents turned immediately to the standards of learning. ''Parents complained bitterly about a curriculum that is structured around teaching to the test and that crowds out other learning,'' Garin says. Warner got the picture and promised to reform the standards to reflect ''real learning,'' a phrase that is shorthand for a focus on broad skills rather than particular content. Warner's Republican opponent never enthusiastically defended the standards. Garin says that the next frontier may be Florida, where the Democrat Bill McBride has taken to criticizing state tests that are also viewed as hostile to ''real learning.''

In virtually every state that has both an extensive system of standards-based reform and a network of wealthy suburbs, you can tap a fairly deep vein of disenchantment among parents and, especially, teachers. North Carolina, for example, is widely considered an exemplary state in the world of standards-based reform. Students in every grade from three to eight take tests in the core subjects, and, unlike New York's, the tests have real consequences. Students who fail the benchmark tests in third and fifth grade can be left back, though as a matter of course they rarely are. And schools are judged by how much they increase a student's test performance from year to year; every teacher in a successful school receives a $1,500 bonus. Schools that hit the mark often put up a big sign announcing their status, the way the state soccer champion might elsewhere.

The teachers that I talked to complained about the tremendous pressure from the community -- and from their own self-interest -- to keep their exalted status. As the writing test was looming, Diane Leusky, who teaches fourth grade at Ephesus Elementary School, a perennially high-scoring school in Chapel Hill, said: ''I've spent the last six weeks doing preparation for narrative writing; I focus strictly on the narrative form. The biggest thing I've got is five parent volunteers whom I've trained.'' Save for the parents, it sounded a good deal like Mount Vernon, with the all-important difference that Leusky couldn't stand it.

Mamaroneck is a perfect example of the suburban conundrum. The town is approximately equidistant from Scarsdale and Mount Vernon, and it falls in between them socioeconomically as well. On the drive eastward from Scarsdale, you pass the immense Tudor clubhouse of the Bonnie Briar Country Club; and Larchmont, one of the two villages that make up the town of Mamaroneck, has high, manicured shrubbery, Land Rovers in the driveways and tennis ladies. But while the other village, which is also called Mamaroneck, has some ritzy neighborhoods of its own, it also houses a sizable black-and-white working and middle class as well as recent Hispanic immigrants. Mamaroneck was the kind of place people moved to for the schools, and there was never any reason to think of the schools as inferior to those in the more glamorous precincts of Scarsdale, Bronxville or Chappaqua. But then New York State administered new tests and also released the results in a format that compared each school with a demographically similar school. And suddenly the Mamaroneck schools didn't look quite so sterling. A quarter of fourth graders failed the E.L.A. test (almost twice as many as in Scarsdale), while the number was much higher in the two more ''diverse'' schools in the town. Some parents were upset; real-estate agents were mortified. One of them, Liz Sauer, said, ''We were getting questions from the people we just sold houses to, people who were coming out from the city.'' Sherri King, the school superintendent, had to make the rounds of the real-estate agencies to put out the fire. She was asked, as Sauer puts it, ''to help us communicate to our customers how to interpret these scores.'' King appears to have explained, if not in so many words, that the children of the kind of people who worried about their home values did just fine in Mamaroneck.

The general feeling among parents, teachers and administrators in Mamaroneck is that they would like to ignore the tests, but they can't. One fourth-grade teacher, Stefan Kuczinski, said, ''My kids do so well on the tests because I reinforce them every day.'' But then he added, ''I don't know anyone who wants to teach fourth grade'' -- a sentiment that you hear repeated all the time. Mamaroneck appears to harbor very few ideologues, for I met scarcely anybody who objected to standardized tests per se. It wasn't the tests but their effects that troubled the citizenry. The tests brought with them a kind of pressure that made life less pleasant without offering any compensating benefits. One parent, Ellen Payne, said: ''If you have a child who's average, you get very, very worried about the test. The test puts an enormous pressure on them, and as a parent I find that very, very upsetting. I was very nervous and anxious about it. Fourth grade is a lot more nerve-racking; it's ridiculous the amount of pressure they put on them.''

I often wondered, in the midst of these conversations, whether it was the parent or the child who was feeling the most pressure. I asked fourth graders in Mamaroneck and Mount Vernon whether they had felt frightened about the E.L.A. test. And while I found one little girl who said that she had had a nightmare -- I was being chased by a book'' -- few of them dredged up anything like the trepidation that I heard from adults.

Testing plays into parents' fears about their children and into their sense of status. Edie Roth, a former head of the P.T.A. at Central, a ''diverse'' school, said that when Central beat out Chatsworth, the town's toniest elementary school, ''you'd think we had just been awarded a million-dollar grant to build a new library. It was like this huge breakthrough. It's joked about, because you feel uncomfortable admitting it's important -- but it is important.''

Mamaroneck complains about the tests much less than Scarsdale, but in some ways it is more affected by them. Parents, teachers and administrators in Scarsdale made a collective decision over the last few years that they would pay as little attention to the tests as possible. Scarsdale could afford to do this because the culture of the schools is the exact opposite of the culture that has brought standards-based reform into being: the internal pressure to succeed according to the highest standards is so intense that external motivations are superfluous. And so in the eighth-grade English class I sat in on at the Scarsdale Middle School in the weeks leading up to the E.L.A. test, the kids were wearing masks and cloaks and performing a scene from ''Romeo and Juliet,'' which they planned on studying for a good eight weeks.

In Mamaroneck, ''Romeo and Juliet'' turned out to be a luxury that simply couldn't be afforded. Dee O'Brien, the eighth-grade English teacher, was also an actress and theater producer; she had planned a comprehensive unit on the play until she suddenly realized, in December, that the E.L.A. test had been moved up from June to March. As she said to the class the day I was there, ''That whole project got knocked to smithereens because we couldn't juggle the time between finishing the project and doing the practice for this exam.'' And so O'Brien handed out sample tests and had her students give them to one another to evaluate. They had practiced taking notes for the listening section, though they found some of the passages so odd that they had to write down everything in order to make sense of it. They had tried to game the system.

''We all agreed that they would not use Sept. 11,'' O'Brien said, ''but they thought maybe patriotism.'' O'Brien promised that as soon as the test was over, ''we're going to start all over again as if it's a new year.'' The kids seemed genuinely upset about missing out on Shakespeare. And the very fact that they had to undergo this mind-numbing preparation instead for a test that had absolutely no bearing on their grades or on their ability to get into the highly selective colleges of their choice struck them as cosmically unfair. One student, Beth Shook, complained, ''It matters for the school, but not for your future individually.'' And then her girlfriends chorused, ''Like the SAT's!''

After class, I asked O'Brien the Diane Ravitch question: Why not just teach Shakespeare? She said, ''One of the reasons I prep them is to allay their anxiety.'' Actually, the prepping seemed to increase their anxiety, but I don't think that O'Brien felt that she could afford to be so blithe with her kids as the Scarsdale teachers did with theirs. There was no compact between parents and teachers allowing her to let the chips fall where they may; and she could not afford to assume that her charges would do just fine on their own. What if other teachers got better results than she did? And so she, too, was teaching to the test, but without much faith in its efficacy. It was something she accepted rather than embraced. And she kept coming back to how much she missed Shakespeare.

In Cambridge, Mass., the epicenter of the anti-testing movement, I sat earlier this year at a breakfast table piled high with leaflets and talked with Jonathan King, father of two, professor of molecular biology at M.I.T. and charter member of the Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education, or CARE. King's children are in the 6th and 10th grades, and last year, like several hundred other students, they did not take the state tests, known as the M.C.A.S., because their parents did not want them to. King said he believed that the tests were turning the schools into ''a police state'' in which educational drill substituted for education. And while the tests, he said, were a colossal waste of time for his children, they were, he insisted, a catastrophe for minorities, who would soon be dropping out in large numbers as the state began withholding diplomas from students who had not passed the exit tests. ''You're going to see in the next few years something that's never existed in the United States,'' King vowed. ''Organizations of parents in defense of public education.'' It was King's belief that boycotts would soon be breaking out all over the country.

CARE is a most unlikely vehicle for a national campaign against testing: the group's chairwoman, Jean McGuire, described the M.C.A.S. in a recent newsletter as a device for ''sorting and labeling,'' like ''the yellow star'' and ''the N-word.'' And in fact, CARE was unsuccessful in its initial political campaign, whose goal was to get the State Legislature to repeal the tests. Nevertheless, King is plainly right that graduation tests raise the stakes of standards-based reform to the highest pitch. One reason state-level tests have provoked more grumbling and rumbling than outright protest is that most of the consequences of them fall on schools rather than students. And the same is true of the new federal education law, which provides special opportunities for children who attend failing schools but has no provision for holding back children who fail to pass the tests. But an increasing number of states have come to the conclusion that students should not be permitted to graduate from high school unless they can pass tests in the core subjects. These tests pose very little danger to successful school districts, but they constitute a fearsome reality check in average or below-average school systems.

Texas is one of the few states that have administered exit tests for many years, and opponents of testing have rallied behind findings by Walter Haney, a scholar at Boston College, that the tests have led to enormous numbers of students being held back in ninth grade, before the test, and then dropping out later. (Pro-testing researchers have challenged Haney's conclusions.) When Massachusetts administered its exit tests the year before last, initially to 10th graders, close to 80 percent of black and Hispanic students failed the math portion. That year, the results did not count; the following year, when they did, the number dropped to almost 50 percent. The Boston Globe recently noted that ''the vision of large numbers of seniors locked out of graduation exercises is starting to fade.'' But no one is ruling out the possibility of at least a minor train wreck. And if a significant number of minority students are denied diplomas, the politics of standards-based reform could change in a hurry. High expectations might not look like a civil right after all.

Most states have postponed exit tests rather than face the music. When Arizona, to take perhaps the most extreme example, first administered its exit tests to 10th graders in 1999, 88 percent failed math, 72 percent failed writing and 38 percent failed reading. That was scarcely surprising: the state had done little to raise the academic standards of the children reaching 10th grade. Arizona immediately pushed back the day of reckoning when students would have to pass the tests from 2001 to a phased-in period from 2002 to 2004. A consultant then suggested that 2005 might be a more prudent date. The state is now shooting for 2006 and has agreed that students who fail the tests will have ''an equivalent demonstration opportunity,'' which sounds suspiciously like the kind of two-track system that exit tests are meant to abolish. The whole episode is a painful proof of the absurdity of thinking that testing, all by itself, will raise the academic performance of children who have muddled along in school for years. This is the kind of delusion that can make standards-based reform look like a conservative species of naivete.

At the bottom of the conundrum of testing is a problem in the nature of policy, and underneath that a problem in the nature of human understanding. The policy problem is that, for political reasons, you cannot go around making exceptions for people who feel they can do without some given reform. Scarsdale and several other elite school systems have, for example, sought to come up with an alternative form of assessment to satisfy the state but have been told that they must invent a scientifically sound standardized test of their own -- an enormous undertaking. The real point is that New York State is not about to create an exemption for rich suburbs and a few other exemplary schools, whether they deserve it or not. Michael McGill, the Scarsdale superintendent, asks: ''So we're taking tests so that everybody will be treated the same? We're not taking tests so that the results will be better?'' The answer appears to be ''That's right.''

The problem of human understanding is that people do not readily grasp a reality radically different from their own. It is, for example, taken for granted among activist Scarsdale parents, as it is among the crusaders at CARE, that testing is even more harmful for disadvantaged children than it is for their own, that ''drill and kill'' can only crush young minds, that the real problem is money, et cetera. I asked a group of 13 Scarsdale mothers who had gathered to evangelize me if any of them had ever spent a significant amount of time in an inner-city school. There was an embarrassed silence; they hadn't. The truth was that they simply couldn't imagine a school where eighth graders didn't know the meaning of ''foe'' and hadn't acquired the skills that their children had acquired unconsciously.

And yet the Scarsdales of the world have a reality, too, and that reality is likewise invisible from behind the veil of policy certitudes. Whenever I asked, either in Albany or Washington, about suburban dissenters, I was told that they must have something to hide, that they couldn't face the fact that 10 percent of the kids, or whatever, were failing and that in any case their claims of hardship were preposterously overblown. But that's not so, either. In places like Scarsdale, school is communal identity. Those hurricane units and Colonial fairs are what Scarsdale is about, as those performances of ''Romeo and Juliet'' are what Mamaroneck is about. These schools are extensions of the community -- not of the state. And to one degree or another, the communities see the new doctrine of one-standard-for-all as an assault on their cherished particularity. They see in a reform whose goal is to level students up a threat to level their students down. As one only mildly ironical Scarsdale mother said to me, ''It's such an intrusion, and it makes you want to just move to Connecticut.''

James Traub is a contributing writer for the magazine.

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