Year 2: Part 2
part 1, 2, 3

Jessica Giardullo has traded her band T-shirts and black eyeliner for a neat haircut and a Western Guilford lacrosse uniform. And she's got a whole new group of friends from her team.

Now in 10th grade, Jessica Giardullo has a new look. Photo by Alison Jones

"It's a completely different crowd from the people I was hanging out with last year. Completely different. They don't really have the same taste in music as me, but there's a lot of stuff we like that is the same. And we're all pretty goofy, so we have fun when we're with each other."

Lacrosse practice is lots of giggles and loud music as the girls run up and down the field. Jessica's learning to cradle the ball, run with a lacrosse stick, throw and catch. It feels good, she says, being part of a team, getting a lot of exercise.

Jessica's mother, Janet Giardullo, is thrilled to see her daughter playing a sport. She gives a lot of credit to teachers at Western for helping her daughter feel more confident, try new things. Janet Giardullo says the whole education system is more supportive now than when she was in school.

"When I was in school, if you weren't excelling in some kind of sport, or you weren't really outgoing and good at something, then you kind of existed in the back row," she says. "And to tell you the truth, that's where I spent most of my time, in the back of the class."

In many ways, Jessica's mother was a student who was "left behind." She finished high school, but never college. Now she's a supervisor at Target. She looks back at her own school experience and thinks maybe she was underestimated. She could have done better with the kind of support and encouragement Jessica is getting. And Giardullo thinks No Child Left Behind has helped her daughter get what she needs.

"Is it perfect? No. But it's better than what we had," she says. "And I think without these tests and these teachers who care, Jessica would be at a zero level for a long time."

To Jessica's mother, the tests are good because they provide proof that her daughter is smart. Teachers are now recommending Jessica for an advanced placement class in 11th grade. But Jessica's still not doing that well in school. Her grades are mediocre. She doesn't do much homework. And school is kind of a drag. Her favorite class this year? "Lunch," says Jessica. "Lunch has to be my favorite class because I sit and talk and eat and those are like my favorite things I do."

Maybe most teenagers would give this answer, but Jessica was really hoping her classes were going to be challenging. She had one class she was really looking forward to: creative writing. But when the school year started, her guidance counselor said not enough students signed up. Jessica was put in a marketing class instead. And even her honors English class has been disappointing. She says lately it hasn't really been a class in literature at all, but a class in test prep.

"I love it when we read books in English and we talk about it in class. I love it!" Jessica says. "But because we have to prepare for all of these writing tests, we've written, oh my goodness, it's like essay after essay after essay. And eventually it gets really annoying. You get tired of writing all of those essays."

Take a sample 10th grade writing test.

All 10th graders in North Carolina take a state writing test. It's one of the tests that determine whether the school makes the federal government's adequate yearly progress goal. In the weeks before the test, students are pulled out of their elective classes to learn how to write the kind of essay that will get a good score.

For Jessica, drilling for the test is not only frustrating, it's making her feel bad about herself. Over and over she writes practice essays, and she can't get a high score. The teacher says her essays aren't focused enough. And to top it all off, Jessica recently realized that because this test is not actually part of her English class, it doesn't really matter how well she does.

"The state just gives it to us to see what level we're at," she says. "It doesn't affect our grade at all. We don't even need it to graduate. We spent all that time revising and writing just so that way some guy on the school board could be like oh, she's doing OK and then throw my paper away."

When Jessica entered high school, she had dreams of going to NYU and becoming a writer. She needed to understand how doing better in school, trying harder, could help her reach those goals. As a 10th grader, Jessica still dreams of college and a writing career, but so far there's not much about school that's motivated her to work very hard, to get good grades and build the kind of academic record that could get her into a top school like NYU.

RJ McLaughlin has nearly made it to the end of 10th grade, but it hasn't been a very satisfying year for him either. He continues to crank away in his algebra class, hoping he'll pass the end of course test when he takes it for the third time in a few weeks. The only class he has any interest in is biology. RJ says he'd like to be a zoologist. He loves animals, especially snakes.

"In my biology class, we have this chapter 36 that I want to get to. I'm waitin' to get to it." RJ's eyes light up. "It's all about reptiles. I put my life on it; I get an A in that section."

But as the end of the year approaches, time gets tight and the biology teacher starts rushing through the chapters so he's sure to cover everything for the test. He skips right over the chapter on reptiles. RJ asks about it in class.

"We gonna do reptiles?" he asks. The teacher is busy with someone else.

RJ asks again. "We ever gonna get to reptiles?"

The teacher glances at him, annoyed. "Eventually," he says, and moves on to someone else with a question about the current lesson. "I hope so," RJ says. "Only 30-something days left."

"OK, we're on page 890 for a few minutes," says the teacher, and the class turns down to their books.

RJ tunes out. And when the teacher hands back a test later in class, RJ won't show his grade, but clearly he didn't do well. And he can't control his frustration.

"I'm pissed off," he says under his breath, punching the air. "I'm pissed off. I'm tired of studying. I can't just - ummm! I hate this damn class!"

For the rest of the class, his jaw is tight. He's annoyed and distracted.

Continue to Year 2, Part 3

©2018 American Public Media