“I know you’re restless today, but I need to see you sitting at your desks. Angel, that means you, too!” In the second-grade classroom at the Washington school where I volunteer, the teacher turned to me and said with a sigh, “It’s testing week.” In fact, her class wasn’t suffering through the standardized ordeal, just tiptoeing around while others did. The “adequate yearly progress” (A.Y.P.) assessments mandated by the No Child Left Behind legislation, which was enacted in 2002 with high hopes of closing the achievement gap for minorities, don’t kick in until third grade. But when it comes to tests, N.C.L.B. is fulfilling its inclusive mission all too well: nobody — not even kids too young to be filling in the bubbles yet — escapes the atmosphere of exam-induced edginess.
The president’s signature domestic initiative, now due for its five-year reauthorization, was supposed to be a model of the hardheaded rigor it aims to instill in America’s schools. “No ‘accountability proposals’ without accountability,” a Bush education adviser declared early on. So one of the most glaring legacies of No Child Left Behind is surprising: it has made a muddle of meaningful assessment. Testing has never been more important; inadequate annual progress toward “proficiency” triggers sanctions on schools. Yet testing has never been more suspect, either. The very zeal for accountability is confusing the quest for consistent academic expectations across the country.