William Sleator has long been regarded as one of the leading writers of science fiction for young people. With TEST, his latest in a long string of thought-provoking novels, Sleator also proves himself adept at social commentary and biting satire, as he takes on all kinds of current social phenomena, particularly the No Child Left Behind policies that now define success in public education for students, teachers and school administrators alike.
In TEST, Sleator imagines a world not too very different from our own, but all the more frightening for that. Kids in public schools spend virtually all their time studying for the test (the XCAS) that will determine their ability to graduate from high school and, to a very real extent, the shape of the rest of their lives. People who pass the XCAS get to go to college and find real jobs and comfortable livings outside of the over-crowded cities. Those who fail, however, are doomed to dead-end jobs, substandard subsidized housing projects, and a life spent sitting in traffic. The oil companies and auto executives have engineered the system to keep these people in their cars (and gas profits in their own pockets) six or more hours every day.
One of those kids stuck studying for the XCAS is Ann Forrest, a high school senior who is having trouble with the English portion of the test. She has never read a book for class or had a meaningful discussion about literature. Instead, her English class is nothing more than a series of drills, reading paragraphs and answering sample test questions.
But soon, Ann's XCAS score is the least of her problems. Her father, a home health worker in one of the city's largest housing complexes, has been getting in trouble by encouraging residents to protest their unsafe housing conditions. The manager of the complex, which is owned by Mr. Warren --- who also owns XCAS's publishing company --- has targeted Ann as a way to get back at her father. But before long, Ann and her new ally, an immigrant boy named Lep, are causing Mr. Warren a lot of problems on their own, threatening to uncover a conspiracy that just might bring down Mr. Warren --- and the XCAS --- once and for all.
Kids who are fed up with their own standardized testing experiences will find much to ponder in TEST, particularly when Sleator contrasts this new style of "teaching to the test" with older methods of reading and discussing literary works. Readers will also enjoy seeing how Ann and Lep solve problems, taking action against a system designed to keep people poor and uneducated. In fact, some may wish that the novel's satire could have been pushed farther, instead of having a plot that, at times, gets mired in unlikely coincidences and near-preposterous revenge schemes. The strongest element of the book is its premise, whose slightly skewed futuristic rendering of current events makes readers think twice about present-day directions and future possibilities.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on March 1, 2008
- Publication Date: March 1, 2008
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 320 pages
- Publisher: Amulet Books
- ISBN-10: 0810993562
- ISBN-13: 9780810993563