Year 2: Part 3
part 1, 2, 3

RJ's biology class never gets to the chapter on reptiles. By the end of the year, RJ's just anxious for school to be over. He takes his state tests, and passes all of them, except algebra. For the third time, RJ misses by a few points. A failing score means another year in the class. Math teacher Jo Adams sees the test results and can't believe it. But before anyone gives the results to RJ, North Carolina education officials make a decision that alters everything. The state changes what counts as a passing score. Suddenly, RJ's failing grade on the algebra exam becomes a passing one - just barely. And so next year, in the 11th grade, RJ McLaughlin will finally get to take geometry.

Jessica Giardullo does well on the state tests. She stops by to see Jo Adams and report on her success.

"English? Passed that. Marketing? Passed that. Like if I didn't pass marketing, I think I would jump out your window," Jessica says. She hated that class.

"I'm proud of you,"says Adams.

They chat for a while about test scores, the classes Jessica's taking next year, and the future. Jessica's plans have changed a bit since the beginning of 9th grade. She still wants to be a writer, and she's certain she will go to college. But the dreams Jessica once had of going far away, to NYU?

"I mean, we all know that is not going to happen," she says. "I mean I'd have to all of a sudden make straight As and get like a huge scholarship. And I don't even know how you'd go about getting a scholarship for a school that's like a gazillion hours away." She pauses. "But I might try going to Guilford College, just cause it's like five minutes away from my house." Jessica laughs, but it's not happy.

Jo Adams' plans for the future have changed too.

"Students have been coming by today, and that's been kind of sad," Adams says.

It's the last week of school.

"Be good and stay out of trouble," Adams says to one student. "Now go before I start crying or something."

Teacher Jo Adams checks her watch as she leaves Western Guilford for the last time. Photo by Alison Jones

Adams has made a big decision. She is leaving Western Guilford High School.

"There are a lot of mixed emotions about it," says Adams. "There are a lot of ways I wished I was staying, but it's a new adventure and I think I need something that's new. And this will be good."

Adams says she's leaving Western because she's sick of the way standardized testing has taken over. And she thinks she's found a job that will allow her to be the kind of teacher she wants to be. The job is at a brand new school, the first high school the county has built in years. It's a public school. The testing demands won't go away, but Adams says she likes the way the principal sees the role of testing in education.

"He says, 'OK, it's not just passing that test, that's not good enough. We want these kids to understand the math that they have taken so that it's not something that they pass a test and it's gone. We want them to be able to problem solve, hold on to these skills.'" Adams is smiling, big. "That just excites me. I mean, it's been a long time since I have been a part of something like that."

Ask Jo Adams if she's ever thought about giving up teaching and she gives a startled look, briefly speechless. It's like the idea has never occurred to her. Teaching is her life. And what she desperately wants to figure out is how to really help the students who are behind, the ones who don't seem to care, who don't even bother to try. She says No Child Left Behind, all of the testing, it's not helping. But she hasn't given up yet. She says she's going to keep trying, in her own way, as long as she can find a school that will let her.

Back to Put to the Test

©2018 American Public Media