When everyone returns to Western for a new school year in August 2006, they get a big surprise. Last year's principal, Randy Shaver, is gone. In July he got an offer to be assistant superintendent in another county. His replacement, Richard Armstrong, arrives just nine days before the start of school.
Western Guilford High School is a big departure for Armstrong. His experience has been in smaller rural schools. He says he came to Greensboro for the challenge of working in an urban district. And Armstrong likes what No Child Left Behind is doing - forcing schools to focus on the achievement gap.
"The public's looking," he says. "And the public is paying attention to what schools are doing. You can't get by, go under the radar because it's posted in the papers, posted on the Web site."
Failing to make the federal government's testing goal is the headline that every principal is afraid of now. So it's good news for Armstrong when the data is released, and it turns out Western made the goal last year. It was so close that at first it looked like the school failed. Turns out some scores were counted that shouldn't have been. Those errors were fixed, and Western begins the year back on the government's list of successful schools.
But while teachers and administrators at Western are relieved about last year's test results, RJ McLaughlin is not. He was the student struggling with testing last year, especially algebra. He's now a 10th grader, and he's taking algebra, again.
"I don't know what happened," says RJ.
He was passing algebra at the end of freshman year. His teacher said he understood the material and recommended him for honors geometry. But he had to pass that state algebra test first. And he didn't. He failed it by just a few points.
So RJ went to summer school to give it another shot. And just days before his second try at the big test, he got an opportunity to go to a basketball tournament in Indiana.
RJ was in his summer school class, and his coach and a teammate walked in. "We were down here in the computer lab, right across there," RJ says as he points to a group of tables. "And they was like, let's go!"
RJ had to make an instant decision: Stay in summer school for the last few days of review, or get in the car for a chance to play for a national championship.
He got in the car.
"When I first got in the car, the last thing in my mind was some math work or whatever," RJ says. "But, it started to dawn on me one night. We had just got back to the hotel. And me and my friend, we was like, 'Man, you think we gonna pass it when we get back?' And I just looked at him and I was like, 'I don't know. I hope so.'"
RJ and his friend put their worries aside and focused on basketball. And their team was good. They made it all the way to the semi-finals, but getting that far in the tournament meant they did not start driving back to North Carolina until the day before the big algebra test. RJ says they drove all night. It was rowdy in the car. Everyone was watching TV and playing video games, cranking music and talking. "I wasn't going to get any sleep, I knew that for a fact," says RJ.
They drove all night. RJ says they pulled up to Western Guilford High School 10 minutes before the test started.
RJ says he froze. There were 60 questions. His mind was blank.
And he failed by just two points this time.
So now he's taking algebra for the third time. And at the end of the school year, he will take the test again. He's not the only one; nearly half of RJ's classmates from last year failed the test too. For RJ, there's not much worse, or more boring, than a third trip through algebra.
RJ's mother, Gale McLaughlin, thinks what happened to her son is unfair, and she's worried about him taking all of these tests.
"To me it's on the messed up side if you can get a B through the whole time you been in school, but you just take this one test and it just kills whatever else you did the whole year," says Gale.
"I kind of agree with it." RJ's father, Reggie, interrupts his wife. He laughs, glances over at her. They are sitting together on the couch. They live in a two-story house on a quiet street in Greensboro. "I understand what my wife was saying," Reggie McLaughlin continues. "But that test verifies that you understand the material. Because I know what happens, 'Hey man, give me the homework.' You can get good grades and not truly understand what's going on. I would like to know that RJ truly understands the material."
McLaughlin likes the proof that testing provides. But he does wonder about the quality of education compared to when he was in school. He wishes RJ was more interested.
"I don't know if the teachers spend the quality time explaining stuff like they did back then," says Reggie. "Cause we actually liked it, we wanted to do it. I would rather go back to school when I went than now."
Reggie and Gale McLaughlin have only good things to say about their high school experience. They both did well, went to college. There's nothing in their memories about feeling "left behind" by school because they're African American. They know about the No Child Left Behind law, but they don't see how it's helping their son.
RJ's math teacher from last year, Jo Adams, has a new assignment. She's still teaching basic algebra, but she's also back to advanced placement calculus, teaching the highest-level students in the school. AP calculus was her specialty for years, though it's been a while since she taught it.
Adams continues to spend a lot of class time on test prep. In her AP calculus class, the focus is on the College Board's advanced placement exam. Everything that can be measured about schools these days is measured. There's just as much pressure to get good AP scores, as there is to pass the state tests.
Adams says she's tired of it all and being back with the advanced students again has been a bit of a shock. They don't seem as well prepared for high-level math as they used to be. She ticks off all the classes they have taken to get to advanced calculus: algebra 1, geometry, pre-calculus, and trigonometry too in some cases. But she says, "They have no idea how to attack a problem, how to study. They can't do anything without a calculator."
Cost of Testing
Source: Education Writers Association - EWA reform brief on the testing provisions of No Child Left Behind, 2004
She blames multiple-choice testing for the their inability to dig into complex problems. "That's all they've been doing, that's all they've been expected to do for the past four years," she says.
And you get what you ask for. "They're so smart, they can look at the choices, and they can figure it out," she says. "So they haven't learned the math because they didn't need to."
When President Bush signed No Child Left Behind, he said standardized testing was needed to make schools better. But Adams says the focus on testing is taking creativity out of the classroom. And though she applauds the law for pressuring schools to pay attention to the lowest performing students, she's not sure they're really getting a better education. And she doesn't think she's a better teacher.
This attitude clouds her perspective on bad days. But there are good days when she looks around and notices maybe she did make a difference. Jessica Giardullo, her student from last year, is one who makes Adams proud.
Continue to Year 2, Part 2