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Testing Pressures Come to Baltimore High School

The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in 2002, mandated standardized testing in the nation's public schools to establish a measure of accountability among states and school districts for the academic performance of their students. The pressures of such testing are most acutely felt among the schools which perennially have low scores, like Northwestern High School in Baltimore.

For school principals, there is one big event hanging over them the entire year — the tests that determine whether the school is meeting state and federal guidelines. This is particularly true at Northwestern High, a struggling school where NPR has been spending some time this year.

Northwestern High has virtually no chance of meeting Maryland's minimum standard for academic improvement. But that doesn't matter. The High School Assessments, or HSA's, are a really big deal at schools like Northwestern. In fact, they're a much bigger deal at schools with low scores, because these tests offer some hope. That's why Northwestern High is pulling out all the stops.

Two to three times a week, certain students ware pulled out of their regular classes, and put into special test preparation sessions. Principal Tajah Gross says they are chosen because they're believe to be a hairsbreadth away from passing the HSA.

For Gross and her team of administrators, these extra classes are part of a concerted effort to respond to pressure, coming from the state and federal governments.

Some experts believe this kind of test preparation does real harm, to the testing process itself. Professor Daniel Koretz of Harvard University says that when students are pushed over the bar, it destroys the value of the test. He says the need to cram for tests is a sign that schools are being asked to do the impossible.

Foes of No Child Left Behind say that special cram courses are symptoms of the testing mania that has infected American education. Even defenders of the law agree that pulling kids out for extra help defies the spirit of No Child Left Behind.

Amy Wilkins is with the Education Trust, a think tank that has backed the federal and state standards behind these tests. She says tests like Maryland's are actually too easy, so that if kids need special help to pass, something is dreadfully wrong.

Whatever the long term impact, teachers at Northwestern High and elsewhere will continue to do what's needed to get test scores up. If you ask them why, many teachers will say that they have a responsibility to give the students a chance to succeed.

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Larry Abramson
Larry Abramson is NPR's National Security Correspondent. He covers the Pentagon, as well as issues relating to the thousands of vets returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.