In recognition of all the testing scandals going on, I offer you this brief excerpt from my novel, Chain Gang Elementary. As you’ll see, Malliford Elementary has its own testing issues, which, in the ened, will lead to a scandal with a unique twist.
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Due to federal mandate, learning was put on hold in February. The Better Schools initiative—or BS, as teachers called it—required high-stakes, curriculum-based testing. For reasons known only to bureaucrats, the state examined students on their cumulative grade-level learning with three months still to go in the school year. The state’s Department of Education had adopted the unfortunately but aptly named Standard Hightower Intellachievement Test to measure progress. Its acronym was never used, for obvious reasons. County educators referred to it as DESI (Don’t Even Say It), and some irreverent teachers called it DUMP.
Though often ridiculed, the test was no laughing matter. Pride, money, stars, and housing prices rode on the results. Teachers in schools with improved test scores received bonuses; schools with declining scores faced sanctions. In the past, Malliford Elementary had nothing to fear. But now the influx of underachievers from Chantilly Arms threatened to lower scores and put the school on the state’s Needs Improvement list (often called the S**T list, for obvious reasons). This would be an unmitigated disaster, but it could get even worse. After a school languished for three years on the Needs Improvement list, its teachers were taken out behind the trailers and shot. At least that’s how Mrs. Leland explained it to PTO President Richard Gray.
With its status as a good school on the line, the stakes were terribly high. Since December, Mrs. Baines, Malliford’s vice principal, did little besides what she called “testprep.” No one took DESI more seriously than reigning Teacher of the Year Sarah Vandenburg, who gave her second-graders practice exams the first day of school and tested them weekly thereafter—and let them watch TV, until she got caught. Despite the newly challenging demographics, Malliford Principal Estelle Rutherford demanded that test scores rise.
She also suggested heads would roll if they didn’t. She’d already picked heads, having established scapegoats like Avon Little by filling their rooms with Underintellachievers. Thus motivated by the principal’s shrill cheerleading, teachers masked their desperation with pasted-on smiles as testing week drew near. They tried to create a festive air in their classrooms, handing out balloons, promising parties for high-scoring classes, and sending brightly-colored notes home to parents with tips on “how to get your students on the winning team.” Miz R’s “Secret Formula for Success” called for an 8:00 p.m. bedtime and a hearty breakfast on testing days. She also suggested kids watch TV to relax.
Richard considered this last idea a terrible one, and he would have said something to the principal had they been on speaking terms. Instead, he editorialized against it in February’s Duck Call, urging kids to read a book instead, and quoted Stan to piss off the principal even more. Unfortunately, Richard no longer knew how many newsletters actually made it home to parents, since some other teachers now followed Mrs. Vandenburg’s lead and threw them away. Though appalled at the school’s excessive zeal, Richard did hope Malliford would gain a top-ten ranking on his watch. A home in a five-star school district was worth $30,000 more than one in a four-star zone, according to Barbara. If he was ever going to get out of town, he wanted cash from the deal. This made him one of many “whores for scores,” as Rita so indelicately put it.
* * *
Miz Rutherford devoutly believed a diet of grapes and bottled water for test-takers would help her win that elusive fifth star. She’d been preaching this message for months and needed the PTO’s help to get the word out to parents of test takers. “It’s scientific,” she’d previously explained to the PTO board. “Grapes assist the brain in the hydration process, which speeds up decision making, as anyone familiar with brain-based learning models understands.” She’d finished off with an imperious glare at Candace and Cindi Lou.
“So kids still get wrong answers, just quicker,” Richard quipped from the podium. “You’re missing the point,” she said. Then again, he’d missed every point she’d jabbed at him. Richard turned to the Drug Awareness chairperson and said, “This grape thing explains why people who drink a lot of wine think they’re smart.” This prompted titters, but the overall mood was sober and serious.
Some board members worried about allergic reactions and frequent bathroom breaks brought on by this brain-hosing. However, most believed in trying anything that might improve test scores, so they ignored warnings about poop and pee on first-grade floors from Candace, who glared back at the principal as she spoke. A motion calling for the PTO “to make necessary arrangements to assure an ample supply of grapes during testing” was quashed by Bessie Harper, mother of all room mothers, when she said the magic words every president longs to hear: “Don’t bother. I’ll take care of it.”
Bessie’s first e-mail to room mothers called for green grapes and half-liter bottles of water. After Mrs. Baines yelped “Wrong grapes! Wrong grapes!” in the hall to Richard, e-mail corrections went out calling for red grapes. A parent wanted to know if purple grapes were acceptable. More checking, another e-mail: “Due to lack of research on purple or black grapes, those varieties should not be used. Parents should send red grapes, seedless of course.” Richard referred to these in his e-mails as The Grapes of Math. A question arose: What brand of water was best? Another flurry of e-mails: Miz Rutherford declared Hydrate the brand of choice. Its parent company happened to back The Mentoring Initiative and planned to install soft-drink machines in the school.
Richard tried to start a rumor that top schools used Perrier, but his pernicious claim never took hold. “What if scores go down?” Bessie asked him during the second round of e-mails. “Then we sell the information to Hydrate’s competitors,” Richard replied. “As a fund-raiser.”
* * *
On February 12, parents and teachers held their collective breath as students began taking DESIs with all the earnest zealousness of a “Duck and Cover” air raid drill. With rankings on the line, every other school and student in the state was their enemy, while sharpened pencils and childish wits were their only friends. One way or another, they would fulfill the BS mandate. What kind of test-takers were these Mallifordians? Would the world bow down before them, or would they be Underintellachievers, road kill on the superhighway to tomorrow?
Deep in the bowels of Malliford, someone already had an idea how it would turn out. Come, let us test now, said the spider to the flies.
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