Chain Gang Elementary Excerpt and Giveaway
One of the unintended consequences of No Child Left Behind has been an over-reliance on high
stakes testing and a lamentable, but somewhat predictable, outbreak of cheating on tests–not by
students, but by teachers and administrators anxious to receive praise and avoid censure.
Jonathan Grant’s new novel, Chain Gang Elementary, has its own testing issues and explores an
entirely new way to change test results. The following passage comes from Chapter Seventeen, in
the middle of the story (and doesn’t give away any of the plot).
Elementary Madness: The Standard Hightower Intellachievement Test
from Chain Gang Elementary by Jonathan Grant, copyright 2011. All rights reserved
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 SHIT 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
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
* * *
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
“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.
To purchase Chain Gang Elementary, click here for options. For Grant's Darwin-Awardish take on education, check out The Chain Gang Blog, and for news about the book, visit Chain Gang Elementary's facebook page.
Jonathan Grant has generously offered to give away 5 copies of his novel, Chain Gang Elementary. This giveaway is for US addresses only. You must be 16 or older to enter. Please fill out the form to be entered into this giveaway. If you have trouble viewing the form, click here. Giveaway Ends November 30, 2011. Good luck!