This year, for the first time, nearly every public school student in grades 3 through 8, plus one high school grade, has to take standardized tests in math and reading. They're required by No Child Left Behind, a signature federal law passed in 2002.
"All eyes are on us," says Karen Dean, principal at A.B. Day Elementary School in Philadelphia. "There will be a report given to us to show just how well we did. So everyone knows it's a high-stakes test."
The stakes are so high that some schools are going as far as offering giveaways to get kids to attend "Super Saturday" prep sessions. Others hook kids up to high-tech machines that create soothing images to help them better handle all the stress.
In Philadelphia, nearly half of every school day now is spent on lessons focused on passing the tests, which supporters justify on some very solid ground.
"I believe that No Child Left Behind has forced us to hold all of ourselves accountable — principals, teachers, students and parents," says Philadelphia School District CEO Paul Vallas.
Under No Child Left Behind, such accountability means schools must show what's called Adequate Yearly Progress. If they don't, sanctions can range from warnings to teacher dismissals, to a complete takeover of the school.
Many teachers and administrators initially embraced No Child Left Behind as a means to improve academic performance, especially in low-performing schools. But lately, several reports have questioned the effectiveness of standardized testing.
H.D. Hoover was the principal author, for decades, of the highly-regarded Iowa Test of Basic Skills, and is a former junior high school teacher. When asked how he would grade No Child Left Behind, he replied with a laugh, "I'd probably just be diplomatic and give it a D-minus. We are basically only measuring reading and math. This ignores a huge part of the curriculum."
Hoover points to the difficulty in creating valid, reliable exams, while others talk about the impact of standardized testing on learning disabled students.
"To take a state test that is four years above the grade level they are working, in a way, sets them up for failure," says Irene Hills, principal at Warner Elementary School.
Next year, standardized testing in science begins. It's part of a No Child Left Behind mandate that requires 100 percent competency in three core subjects by 2014
"You can sort of mess around with this adequate yearly progress until the end," Hoover says. "Then you find out — boom, the emperor has no clothes. This was all a game."
It's all part of a federal law that appears to have left behind as many questions as answers.