Part 1

Stephen Smith: From American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary produced in association with North Carolina Public Radio- WUNC.

[school bell]

Male teacher: You've got about 12 minutes. I'll call your name. Come get your test.

Smith: There's been a dramatic change in American schools.

Male teacher: Clear off your desk, you need a writing utensil.

Smith: In every public school standardized tests are being used to measure what students are learning.

Male teacher: You're going to have 40 questions on this test.

Smith: Test results are putting new pressures on teachers and schools.

[school bell]

Principal: It is absolutely essential that we get every student tested.

Smith: But is it working? This hour, "Put to the Test" a documentary from American RadioWorks.

First, the news.

[cheers and "Hail to the Chief"]

Smith: In January of 2002, President George W. Bush visited a high school in Hamilton, Ohio.

["Hail to the Chief"]

Smith: It's just months after 9/11. President Bush is at the height of his political power. The crowd erupts as he takes the stage, an enormous American flag behind him.

[Cheers, "USA, USA,"]

Smith: Bush beams as he acknowledges the chanting crowd. On stage, he's surrounded by teachers and students, a young girl gasps with delight as the president shakes her hand. Politicians are here too, including Senator Ted Kennedy, one of the country's most powerful Democrats. This is a day of bi-partisan celebration. Congress has passed the No Child Left Behind Act, hailed by leaders on the left and the right as the most significant education law in a generation. The president has come to Ohio to sign the law, and explain why a change is needed in American schools.


President Bush: I read a quote from a young lady in New York. She said, I don't ever remember taking an exam. They just kept passing me along. I ended up dropping out in the 7th grade. I basically felt nobody cared.

Smith: There was no national requirement to test and measure all students, to make sure everyone knew how to read and write, do basic math. The president tells the crowd in Ohio that the United States needs testing; he calls it the "right" thing for America.

Bush: I understand taking tests aren't fun. Too bad. We need to know in America. We need to know whether or not children have got the basic education.


Smith: From American Public Media, this is "Put to the Test," a documentary from American RadioWorks and North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC. I'm Stephen Smith.

It's been nearly six years since President Bush visited Ohio to sign No Child Left Behind. Every public school is now required to measure and quantify student progress, and to make the results public. The goal: Every student must pass the tests by the year 2014.

The clock is ticking. And so far the results are mixed. There's evidence that elementary students are doing better on national tests in math, but little to show there's been any real improvement at the high school level. And in reading, the gains appear modest at best; some studies actually show a decline in reading skills since No Child Left Behind was passed.

What's going on? Why are students making such little progress? Are the tests helping? Is education getting better?

Lawmakers are asking these questions now as No Child Left Behind comes up for reauthorization in Congress. And because debates in Washington tend to be big and broad, we wanted a close-up look at how testing is working at one school. So American RadioWorks spent two years at Western Guilford High School in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Western is a good school by most measures. The majority of students go on to college; SAT scores are a bit above the national average. But the school has failed to meet the federal government's testing goals twice since No Child Left Behind took effect. And testing pressures are having a big impact on teachers and students.

Emily Hanford has our story from Western Guilford High School in Greensboro, North Carolina.

[party noises, laughing]

Angela Johnson: Hey, how are you? I didn't know you were comin'. Yes, well how sweet of you to come, yes.

Emily Hanford: Angela Johnson is seeing people today she hasn't seen in years, former students, colleagues from her early days of teaching. They're all gathering in the media center at Western Guilford High School.

[people chatting, laughing]

Hanford: Everyone is here to say goodbye. After 30 years as an English teacher, Angela Johnson is calling it quits, abruptly, in the middle of the school year. Someone hands her a microphone, and she pulls her glasses up onto her nose, the prepared English teacher, ready with a speech.

Johnson: I have had much difficulty shaping my thoughts about teaching into words. But I have cobbled together a few pearls of wisdom.

Hanford: It's January of 2006, four years after President Bush signed No Child Left Behind. And Johnson does not like what standardized testing is doing to education. .

Johnson: I believe that students are drowning in information and starving for knowledge. I believe that what is planted into a student, not what is poured into him, matters more. And I believe that we have lost our way today because we have forgotten or failed to remember those truths.


Hanford: Angela Johnson doesn't really want to retire. She's still in her early 50s. But she says teaching has changed, it's no longer the job she once loved. In the quiet of her classroom, on her last day of teaching, she talks about this.

Johnson: Why you want to teach is because you love a subject, you love the children, you want them to love it too. And when it's boiled down to a 100 multiple choice questions, that's not it."

Hanford: Johnson shakes her head and sighs. She says schools are becoming so focused on test results that education is being reduced to what can fit on a multiple choice exam.

Johnson: And to me it's taken the joy, the absolute joy out of learning and teaching because the students begin to see learning as just an end that you must do this to get to that point. And I don't think we are producing more educated children. I think we are producing more astute test-takers. In fact, now we have classes where we teach children how to take a test. I don't know, it doesn't sound right does it? We should be teaching children material, literature, math, science. Not how to take a particular test, do you think?

Hanford: Ask any teacher what they think of all the standardized testing that's come with No Child Left Behind, and they're likely to sound a lot like Johnson, they don't like it. Ask the principal at Western Guilford High School what he thinks, and he'll tell you, the testing is absolutely necessary.

Randy Shaver: Good morning, how are you ladies? Good, how are you?

Hanford: Randy Shaver is a small man, friendly but firm. He starts his day with a can of Tab in one hand, a walkie-talkie in the other. He wanders into the sea of students milling around outside the cafeteria.

Shaver: What you all doing with those cards out?

Hanford: Western Guilford High School is a sprawling brick building, shiny tiled halls, fluorescent lights. It was originally built in 1968 for 300 students; back then, this was a rural area, almost all white, surrounded by farms. Now the school sits at the suburban edge of the city of Greensboro, there are apartment complexes on those former farms, and shopping plazas, gas stations and big box stores down the road.

[students talking with Shaver]

Hanford: In the fall of 2005, when our story begins, there are nearly 1500 students at Western. Shaver knows many of them by name.

Shaver: Hey Kyle. Doin' well? That's good.

Hanford: Everyone's waiting for the morning bell, gathering in groups along the walls. White students are still the majority here, 60 percent. The rest are mostly African-American, with a small but rapidly growing population of Latinos and foreign-born students. Shaver wants to know what everyone is up to.

Shaver: So what are you taking this semester?

Student: Bridge Math 1, and I'm set to graduate this year.

Hanford: Shaver was a teacher for 21 years before becoming a principal; this is his third year at Western. He says every student deserves a chance at a good education.

Shaver: Even the worst kid. The ones that we have in here on a regular basis we call our frequent flyers because of discipline problems. They all have a story. And if you don't love every one of them, and you don't want to find a better life for them, then like I tell all my teachers and administrators, if you don't bring that with you to this setting, then go sell insurance.

Hanford: This is basically the message of No Child Left Behind. Every student, black, white, rich, poor, students who don't speak English, students with learning disabilities, they all must learn. And everyone in education will tell you that for a long time, schools didn't serve all kids. Especially high schools, says Shaver, they focused on the top, students who were easy to teach, up-to-speed, motivated.

Shaver: And the rest of the kids we just said, "Well you know we are going to give you a diploma that will allow you to join the workforce or go to the military. Hope you enjoyed your high school experience." And a lot of them, we know, left without being able to read or write at a literate level, and that's not fair to them.

Hanford: Look at the test scores, and you'll see what Shaver's talking about. On the most recent state standardized tests, 82 percent of white students at Western passed, but only 54 percent of low income students did, and 51 percent of African Americans. This is the achievement gap that education experts talk about, and there are gaps like this at most American high schools. The goal of No Child Left Behind is to eliminate these gaps. Shaver believes in the goal, and says testing is essential. Last year, because of the achievement gap, Western did not make Adequate Yearly Progress, the fedreal government's testing goal under No Child Left Behind. Miss AYP two years in a row and the government says you're a failing school. Shaver's job is to get Western to make AYP. Standing in his way: the students at the bottom.

Jessica Giardullo: Mr. Whitley, do you have a pencil I can borrow. I haven't had one like all day. No seriously, I haven't done work in like any of my classes.

Hanford: That's Jessica Giardullo. She's 15, a freshman at Western.

Giardullo: Alls I pretty much do is kind of hang out with my friends. That's pretty much it. And listen to a lot of music.

Giardullo: Oh my God, play the "I'm in Love with A Stripper." All the way, volume up.


Hanford: Jessica wears band t-shirts, torn sneakers, black eyeliner. She writes in her journal a lot, dreams of being a writer. But school is something she's never taken very seriously, perhaps because school has never made her feel very good about herself.

Giardullo: Pretty much since about, I don't know, maybe first grade, people have told me, umm, you're average level with everybody else. You know, I didn't really care, I was like, that's cool, whatever.

Hanford: For Jessica, school has always been this thing that was kind of "against" her, slapping her with labels. In kindergarten, attention deficit disorder. In 5th grade, special ed class. And for a reason; by the end of elementary school, she could barely read still. Her test scores were awful. Grades just as bad. But, here she is in 9th grade. She's a confident reader now. In fact, she loves books, and dreams of going to a top school like NYU.

Giardullo: Do you have any idea how I'd love to live in a city like New York? I want to go to go to New York, I want to go to school, I want to become a journalist, I want to make something of myself. God I wish I could go right now.

Hanford: But if Jessica's going to make it to NYU, she needs to turn things around pretty fast. Bring her grades and test scores up, take some high level classes. Most of all, she must see the connection between doing better in school and getting what she wants out of life. Can Western help Jessica - to improve her performance, and get what she wants?


Ms. York: Alright guys, Travis find your seat please. RJ, Will, please don't throw things, OK?

Hanford: Spend any time in a class full of students who aren't doing well in school, and it's pretty obvious one of the biggest challenges for teachers, these students don't like school. And a lot of them are way behind. This is a special English class called "Strategic Reading." Ninth graders at Western with the lowest test scores all take this class first semester. Some of them still read on a third grade level.

York: We're going to continue talking about To Kill a Mockingbird.

Male student: To Kill a Mockingbird. Just shoot it!

Hanford: This class is never quiet. The kids are up and down, sharpening pencils, tossing paper, tapping their fingers against the desks. And even in this rambunctious crowd, one student stands out.

York: Oh RJ, RJ! I know you don't want me to call your mother right now.

RJ McLaughlin: How do you know?

McLaughlin: My name Ryan Justin McLaughlin. But everybody call me RJ or whatever.

York: Sit down, sit!

McLaughlin: I didn't even do nothin'. I gotta get my stuff.

Hanford: RJ's the class clown - cracking jokes, pulling silly pranks. He's 14, tall, lanky, constantly moving, a big smile when he's joking around, a tight jaw when he's frustrated. RJ just moved to Greensboro from Texas, and like all these kids, he came to high school with low test-scores, poor grades, and little enthusiasm.

McLaughlin: I'm tired of coming to school every single day with the same stuff. Some of these teachers get on my nerves.

Hanford: RJ would rather not be in school all day, but that doesn't mean he's never interested in what's happening in class. When the teacher brings up the Scottsboro trials during discussion of To Kill A Mockingbird, RJ has questions. He wants to know if the nine black teenagers accused of rape in the 1930s each had their own lawyer.

York: That's a good question. It doesn't say. Um probably all of the men did, but we don't know if they had the money.

McLaughlin: That's what I'm sayin'.

York: Good thinking RJ.

Hanford: RJ nods. But soon he tunes out again, distracted, joking with his peers.

McLaughlin: I got a short attention span. If someone talking to me and I ain't interested I just turn my head and start thinking about of somethin' else. I got a bad habit of that.

Hanford: RJ's frustrated with himself for not doing better.

McLaughlin: Plenty of times I go home and I look at my bag. And I see homework and stuff on top and then I'll look out the window and see my basketball. I'll do this later on. I just keep putting it off. The whole thing just go on. It's like a cycle. If I can just get something to just motivate me to do it.

Hanford: RJ says he wants to go to college. He's hoping for a basketball scholarship. But, can he make it through high school? He needs motivation, a reason to keep coming every day. Can teachers and administrators at Western help him?


Hanford: Western Guilford High School has identified RJ McLaughlin, Jessica Giardullo and 83 other 9th graders as the ones most "at-risk" of failing and dropping out. Like a lot of high schools, Western has a big problem; principal Randy Shaver says about 20 percent of freshman quit before the end of the year. Graduation rate is one factor that determines whether a school makes Adequate Yearly Progress, the federal mandate Western desperately needs to make. And so, to help the students, and meet the mandate, the school is trying something new. The "at-risk" students are in a set of trailers behind the main buildings. They take most of their classes together. Sounds kind of harsh, but math teacher Jo Adams says when you mix low performing students in with the ones doing better in school, they do get lost.

Jo Adams: They'll be your three failures that you look at in a class of 32 and say, you're my three failures. You're my 10 percent that I'm gonna lose. Having them together like this, you can't do that.

Adams: Trey, Rome, Travis, Zach.

Hanford: Adams is one of five teachers working with this group they call the Freshman Academy A team. The idea is to create a small school where students get individual attention.

Adams: They're here with you everyday and you've got to try everyday to find something that you think will work.

[classroom chatter]

Adams: Instead of saying it that way Julius, we gotta get a little more fancy cause we're in algebra now.

Hanford: Adams is a small woman with spiky hair and a bright laugh. She darts around the room, ready with questions when students tune out.

Adams: He's going to cut it in half, how many pizzas is he going to make? Two, one, four, one, three, one! Stand up. How many people are you? One? I'm going to cut you in half. What's half of you? What's half of four? What's half of six? You got it, okay!

Hanford: These students are behind, and for Adams getting them up to speed is important. But she says most of them could care less about math. And they have other things on their minds, friends, sports, family problems, sometimes big problems, she says, parents who've lost jobs, violence in their homes, not having enough to eat.

Adams: Most days that I walk into room, math is the icing on cake. I deal with the cake first. And hopefully I get to teach a little math as I go along. And I firmly believe that when a kid is ready, they'll learn.

Hanford: Adams took this assignment to test herself, can she help the students who need it most? For years she taught Advanced Placement calculus, the top students. She's known as one of the best teachers in the entire county. So when she took this job teaching basic math, it sent a message: The school is directing its resources to the bottom. And Adams thinks she can help these students because she identifies with them.

Adams: I don't remember what grade level I read at. I just know that when I was in high school and my first four years in college, I could read and read and read and then you could ask me and I couldn't tell you a thing.

Hanford: Adams wishes someone had tested her, and helped her. But even though her reading problem made school difficult, she kept coming, and she loved school, because of a teacher.

Adams: she took the time to find out what was going on with me as a person, she made a connection that kept me alive and in school. And that's what they're looking for. They're looking for somebody to make a connection.

Hanford: Jo Adams says she's looking forward to working with these struggling students this year.. The payoff for her will be getting them interested in something, anything, that will motivate them to try harder. The payoff for the school will be better test scores.

[basketball cheerleaders, buzzer]

Hanford: It's the middle of the school year now, basketball season, and 9th grader RJ McLaughlin has made the team. Tonight the Western Guilford Hornets are playing their rival, the Dudley High School Panthers.

Gale McLaughlin: RJ, don't let 23 have no more free open threes. Hey come here! RJ, no more, 23, no more threes!

Hanford: That's RJ's mother cheering for him, and his father too. His little sister and his grandparents are also here. They come to all of his games. The basketball court is where RJ feels good about himself.

McLaughlin: I love it when it's a big crowd and people booin' you and people want you to lose and stuff like that. So then you can just prove everybody wrong.

Hanford: RJ has always loved basketball says his mother Gale McLaughlin. He could dribble when he was a toddler. And he had another big interest back then, she says, science, nature, especially reptiles, dinosaurs.

Gale McLaughlin: Even as a little boy he could tell you every dinosaur, as a little boy, like three, he could tell you names. He be like momma that's a Tyrannosaurus Rex or say something. In the country when we go home in the summers at my parents, he be lookin' for snakes. When someone says they see a snake, he's out the door.

Hanford: McLaughlin and her husband grew up together in a small town south of Greensboro. She's a nurse now; he's a manager at a company that makes gas pumps. McLaughlin says she and her husband worry about RJ in school. She's especially upset about the way he was treated in middle school. RJ's mother calls her son Ryan, his given name.

Gale McLaughlin: When we were in Texas, I think Ryan got a bum steer because they labeled him a certain way and I said Ryan's not no dumb kid. I don't think he need all this stuff you all puttin' on him. He just never had teachers who cared.

Hanford: RJ's mother says the school in Texas wanted her to sign papers saying he had attention deficit order. But she refused. She said there was nothing wrong with him, he was just bored. And to her relief, this is what Jo Adams and other teachers at Western have started saying too. By the middle of the year, RJ's still not very interested in school, but he's not getting in trouble as much. And even though he rarely does homework, he has As and Bs on his report card. And a new attitude about his teachers:

McLaughlin: The teachers care enough to help you. They're not going to let you get a zero. They'll make you come in there for the whole school year until you get it done. You still might not get like a 100, you might get a one. But they're going to make you do the work.

Hanford: No Child Left Behind is pushing schools to focus on low-achieving students, and what's happening, at least here at Western, is that students who were once ignored, are getting a second look. And sometimes, what the school sees now is not a student who is slow, but a student who needs a bigger challenge. The school's job is to deliver that challenge in a way that matters to the students, engage them, make it interesting, help them care. But at the same time, the school has to deliver on a more immediate goal too.

Adams: Now, let me ask you a question as far as test-taking skills.

Hanford: By January, math teacher Jo Adams is spending a lot of class time on test prep.

Adams: The government has said standardized testing is the way to determine if you know information or not. And it's not just what you know but how fast can you give it to me. Alright, so you've got to learn how to be the best at it.

Hanford: In a few days, the students in Adams' algebra class will take something called a benchmark test - practice for the big state test that comes at the end of the year. Most students in this school take benchmarks every four and a half weeks. The school needs to know how they're doing, so students who aren't passing can get extra help. And Adams' students are not doing well. Their average score on the last benchmark: 16 percent. In other words, her students, on average, got only 16 out of 100 questions right. Adams and her colleagues are stressed, and they're doing everything they can to bring the scores up.

Adams: We're seeing that test come down the road. And we know that for the state and for the administration downtown, that is the do-all, that is the God.

Hanford: And there's an urgency about passing the tests this year that goes beyond how the teachers or the school will be judged. A new county policy says students must pass the end of course test in order to graduate from high school. It's making RJ McLaughlin really nervous.

McLaughlin: I'm not a big test taker. I can get a 100 or anything on any homework or anything we do in class. But just the word test does something and I like crunch up and I'll pass, but it'll be skim, I barely pass it.

Hanford: RJ's been haunted by this test-taking problem for years. And all the class time spent on test taking skills hasn't made RJ a master of the multiple-choice exam.

McLaughlin: I like to stay on one problem. I'll go in order one, two, three, four, if I get stuck on five, I'm going to sit on five for a while 'til I get it right. I hate skipping around. But you're looking at the clock saying 20 minutes, 10 minutes, five minutes, so you just start guessing cause time is going by.

Adams: Any other questions? Remember, those of you that make level three or four on the benchmark, there's movie and pizza. So give it your best shot.

Hanford: By the day of the benchmark exam, Jo Adams knows her students will not do well. The test comes from the county; it covers what every algebra student is supposed to know by the middle of the year. But Adams is behind; she hasn't had time to teach everything that will be on the test. She knows she's behind because the county gives her something called a pacing guide that tells her exactly what she's supposed to teach every single day.

Adams: This is what you're supposed to do Day one, Day two, Day three, Day four, Day five and you know, if you're not on Day four, why aren't you on Day four? Well. I'm sorry, the students I have, it might take three days to learn how to solve equations, and solving equations is the basis for every other math level they're going to take.

Hanford: Adams took this assignment with the low performing 9th graders because she liked the idea of having a small group of students, working with them one-on-one, trying new approaches to get them interested in math. But by January, it's clear that this experiment is going to look like a failure unless the test scores go up.

Shaver: Is this everybody? Oh, you're good, stay.

Hanford: A few weeks later, principal Randy Shaver, Jo Adams and four other teachers are gathering around a large table in the staff workroom. The benchmark results have come back, and not surprisingly, Adams' students failed. They got 22 percent right this time, better than 16 percent, but far from good enough.

Shaver: We're going to do a little focus group, let me grab another chair

Hanford: Shaver has called this meeting because benchmark scores school wide are low too, he says just 65 percent of students are on track to pass the end of course tests. Five years ago, when No Child Left Behind was signed, test scores were higher. Shaver must do something. So he's proposing a change in the school schedule, rather than taking eight classes a year, students would take six. It's a narrowing of the curriculum that would give students more time in classes that have state tests at the end. One of the teachers confronts Shaver with a question about the schedule change.

Male teacher: Um, what's that going to do to our elective courses, art and chorus?

Shaver: bottom line is, I don't know. We may not offer three levels of drama, but we'll still have a drama program. Um, we certainly have to look at where we're not performing and that seems to be in the core.

Male teacher: We're test driven.

Shaver: Yeah, we are, there's no doubt, yup!

Hanford: Randy Shaver's job as a principal is to carry out the policies that come from above him. But, he has concerns about whether all of this testing is really the right direction for education:

Shaver: We understand that in order to be a successful school that we have to meet the measures that are established for us, we have to meet those bars. And the way that we do that sometimes is not to teach the total curriculum. Instead we teach the things that we know will be on the test and we teach them in the manner that we know they'll be presented on the test. So yes, we are raising a generation of kids who are going to be excellent at taking tests. I hope they're going to learn what they need to learn along the way.

Hanford: And what happens to kids who are just not good at tests?

Shaver: Well hopefully they become better at tests.


Giardullo: Oh Romeo, Romeo, where are you Romeo? Deny your father and change your name or if you do that, just say you love me and I'll change my name from Capulet.

Hanford: By spring, Jessica Giardullo and her classmates are tackling Shakespeare. Jessica's into it; she loves reading, wants to be a writer. And school is going pretty well. Jessica's passing most of her tests; and teachers are saying she's smart, recommending her for honors classes, telling her she could get a college scholarship. Jessica's not quite sure what to make of it all:

Giardullo: I don't know, I either started understanding it more, or I just started doing work. But when you start to take in stuff more easily, it just, it feels really good. You can like feel yourself smarter. It's like when people say "hey, good job" and you can watch your grades go up and up It like feels really good, you know. You're like, I'm getting better at this.

Hanford: With her new self-confidence about school, especially English, Jessica is facing a different frustration. It's too easy. And she's not afraid to question the "simple" version of Romeo and Juliet her class is reading.

Female teacher: After Romeo enters the party, Romeo and Juliet fall in love.

Giardullo: But I mean like the real Romeo and Juliet is a lot longer than this, isn't it? Doesn't it take just a little bit more for them to fall in love?

Teacher: Well, it's longer in the book because the language is longer but the events are the same.

Giardullo: That kind of sucks, it's like really short.

Teacher: Well, yeah, it is shorter. Okay, Scene IV.

Hanford: By the end of freshman year, Jessica is not only ready to be done with remedial work, she wants more. She's actually kind of excited about school now, and the idea of a bigger challenge in honors courses next year. And she's really looking forward to one class in particular, creative writing. Finally, she'll be able to do what she really loves, in school.

McLaughlin: This is RJ, it's April 4th. I'm in my second class, history, world history with teacher Lamberth.

Mr. Lamberth: Now this is a grade guys, go ahead and answer these questions we're reviewing again today what we have reviewed the last few days.

Hanford: Things are not going very well for RJ McLaughlin at the end of freshman year. Basketball season is over. And school is as boring and frustrating as ever.

Lamberth: Now what is the definition of a Republic? Shh, I need one, I don't need five. OK, go ahead RJ.

McLaughlin: People who don't like Dominicans.

Lamberth: Np, no, no, no.

McLaughlin: Oh wait, ask someone else.

Lamberth: Go ahead.

McLaughlin: A lot stuff people say you gonna use when you get out of high school. I don't know when I ever going to have to know what a Chinese Governor was ever in my life.

Lamberth: Shh. RJ turn around, face front. Listen, all you have to do is sit here and copy.

Hanford: And RJ is not only bored, he's nervous. The North Carolina end of course tests are coming up soon. His algebra teacher Jo Adams has recommended him for honors geometry next year, but RJ's not sure he can pass the state algebra test. And if he doesn't pass the test, he'll have to take the entire year of algebra again.

McLaughlin: I need an education, I just don't want one.

Lamberth: Pass them up.

Hanford: Math teacher Jo Adams is worried about RJ. She's offering extra test prep after school, but RJ rarely comes. Most of her students don't come, and it's frustrating for her because she wanted to make them care, to at least try to do better. And she's feeling bad about herself because her test scores are so low.

Adams: The perception is that I'm a strong and good teacher and then over the last two weeks I've gotten my Algebra 1 scores back and I'm going, you know, their perception's got to be wrong. It's not reality. And. So it's scary. Am I going to let these people down? So I don't know. I'm still not doing it right, or as good as I could, I think.

Adams: OK, your test in here you have from 8:45 to 10:15 to take it. You will not go to your one B class today.

Hanford: Testing week in North Carolina comes in early June. For Western Guilford High School, making Adequate Yearly Progress, the federal goal under No Child Left Behind, all depends on how the students perform on these tests, on this day. It's out of the teachers' hands.

Adams: Jessica, you're supposed to have two. Who's got calculator two?

[pencil sharpening]

Hanford: Jessica Giardullo is feeling pretty confident about the tests. And she's looking forward to 10th grade, especially that creative writing class she signed up for.

Adams: Alright, this is it, no more talking after this.

Hanford: And RJ McLaughlin? He is pretty sure he won't pass his algebra test. The only thing he's looking forward to, his summer basketball league.

Adams: Okay. Go.

Hanford: Jo Adams is not looking forward to seeing the test results. She is predicting that 60 percent of her students will fail.


Hanford: Still, Principal Randy Shaver is hopeful the school can make Adequate Yearly Progress. He's done the math based on the most recent benchmark test results, and he says if just two more African American students can pass the algebra exam, the school will make the federal government's testing goal. That's how specific No Child Left Behind gets. Two students fail, and the whole school fails. But if they pass? Western passes.


Smith: You're listening to "Put to the Test" - an American RadioWorks documentary produced in association with North Carolina Public Radio- WUNC.

When we come back, we'll return to Western Guilford High School in Greensboro, North Carolina to find out if the school makes the federal government's testing goal, and to hear how students RJ McLaughlin and Jessica Giardullo fare as 10th graders. We'll also catch up with teacher Jo Adams, who takes on a new assignment next year.

To find out more about No Child Left Behind and its impact on schools across the country, visit our website at American You can read an interview with a former Bush administration official who is pushing for changes in the law. And you can try answering some questions from North Carolina's tests.

"Put to the Test" continues after a short break, from American Public Media.

Smith: From American Public Media, this is "Put to the Test," an American RadioWorks documentary produced in cooperation with North Carolina Public Radio- WUNC. I'm Stephen Smith.

We're spending the hour at Western Guilford High in Greensboro, North Carolina to explore how the No Child Left Behind law is affecting teachers and students. Before the break, we met two struggling 9th graders, their teacher and the principal. When everyone returns to Western for a new school year in August, they get a big surprise.

Richard Armstrong: I am Richard Armstrong, principal of Western Guilford High School.

Smith: Last year's principal Randy Shaver is gone. In July, he got an offer to be assistant superintendent in another county. Shaver's replacement arrived just nine days before the start of school. The new principal is out in the crowded hallway, shooing kids along to class. Producer Emily Hanford picks up our story here.

Armstrong: Folks, I hope you all are not late. You going to make it? I hope you do. Hurry, alright.

Part II

Hanford: Western Guilford High School is a big departure for the new principal, Richard Armstrong. His experience has been in smaller 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:

Armstrong: The public's looking. And the public is paying attention to what schools are doing. You can't go under the radar because it's public knowledge. Posted in the papers. Posted on the web site.

Hanford: 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.

McLaughlin: Ms. Gertner. For A through 11, are they just lookin' for the number that make up that equal number? I know A is four and four.

Hanford: 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. And here he is, as a 10th grader, in algebra, again.

McLaughlin: I don't know what happened.

Hanford: RJ 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 the 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.

McLaughlin: My coach and his son came down the stairs, we was down here in the computer lounge, right there and they was like, let's go!

Hanford: 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.

McLaughlin: When I first got in car the last thing in my mind was some math work or whatever, but it started to dawn on me one night me and my friend, we was like, think we gonna pass when we get back? I don't know. I hope so.

Hanford: RJ and his friend put their worries aside, 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.

McLaughlin: Everybody was watching TV, listening to music, playing video games and just talkin' and I wasn't going to get any sleep, I knew that for a fact. And we got here and I had like10 minutes to wake up or whatever, and then I took my test.

Hanford: RJ says he froze. And he failed, by just two points. So now he's taking algebra for the third time. And at the end of the year, he will take the state algebra test again. He's not the only one, nearly half of RJ's classmates failed the test too.

A teacher: Okay RJ, tell me about, if I put one in, what do I get?

McLaughlin: For number what?

Teacher: Number six, when I put in number one?

McLaughlin: Oh, .08

Teacher: 0.8, beautiful!

Hanford: RJ's annoyed about being in algebra again; his mother thinks it's unfair.

Gale McLaughlin: 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.

Reggie McLaughlin: I kind of agree with it.

Hanford: Gale McLaughlin is sitting on the couch next to her husband Reggie. They live in a two-story house on a quiet street in Greensboro.

Reggie McLaughlin: That test verifies that you understand the material. I mean I understand what my wife said, but um, I would like to know he truly understands the material.

Hanford: Reggie McLaughlin likes the proof that testing provides. But he does wonder about the quality of education compared to when he was in school.

Reggie McLaughlin: I don't know if the teachers spend the quality time explaining stuff like they did back then. Cause we actually liked it. We wanted to do it. Because of the teachers, just the old fashioned. And now it's like, "Okay, do your homework. Did you cover it? No, but they want us to do it." It's, you know. It's a big difference. I would rather go back to school when I went then now.

Hanford: 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.

Adams: Alright now, you're going to have a significant amount of these types of questions on the AP exam. On number one.

Hanford: 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. AP calculus was her specialty for years, though it's been a while since she taught it.

Adams: Now you need to look at number 19 because I am telling you this is a frequently asked question, especially on the open-ended.

Hanford: Adams continues to spend a lot of time on test prep, in this 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 is tired of it all. And she says 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.

Adams: Now these are students that have had algebra I, geometry, algebra II, honors pre-calculus, some of them have had honors trig and they have no idea how to attack a problem, how to study. They can't do anything without a calculator. I think it's because for the last four years they've been passing multiple-choice tests. They're so smart, they can look at the choices, they can figure it out. They can look at it almost and tell you. So they haven't learned the math because they didn't need to.

Hanford: 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.

Adams: This year she's just blossomed. She's in geometry, she's playing lacrosse, she's just doing great.

[sport cheers, "Let's go Jessica]

Hanford: Jessica has made a huge transformation since the beginning of 9th grade. She's ditched the band t-shirts and black eyeliner for a neat haircut and a new group of friends from her lacrosse team.

Giardullo: Oh, it's a completely different crowd from the people I was hanging out with last year. Completely different. They don't necessarily 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.

[sports cheers, "1,2,3, Team!"]

Hanford: To watch Jessica playing on a team and thriving with new friends has been exciting for Jessica's mother. She gives a lot of credit to teachers at Western for helping her daughter feel more confident. Janet Giardullo says the whole education system is more supportive now than when she was in school.

Janet Giardullo: Because in my school, if you weren't excelling in some kind of sport or outgoing, you kind of existed in the back row. And that's where I spent most of my time was in the back of the class you know. Where she has that interest so she's getting a little bit more support.

Hanford: 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. And she thinks No Child Left Behind has helped Jessica get what she needs.

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

Hanford: 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?

Giardullo: Lunch. Lunch has to be my favorite class because I sit and talk and eat and those are like my favorite things to do.

Hanford: Jessica had one class she was really looking forward to: creative writing. But when school started, her guidance counselor said not enough students had signed up. So 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.

Giardullo: I love it when we read books in English and we talk about it in class. That's gotta be my, I love it! 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 after essay. And eventually it gets really annoying. You get tired of writing all of those essays.

Writing teacher: Alright, so, if you're writing your essay, what are three things you need to consider before you start writing it?

Hanford: This is a special tutoring session for the state writing test. All 10th graders in North Carolina take it, 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.

Writing teacher: Then the second thing you usually throw in is what? An example, okay. You've got your literature, your personal experience, you've got history, current events, so you've got a whole bunch of stuff that you can pull from.

Hanford: For Jessica, this kind of drilling for the test is not only tiring, 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.

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

Writing teacher: Just restate that thesis, give a brief personal comment on it, okay, and you're done. Just sum it up so the reader knows you're not just leaving them hanging in the air. And then you are good to go.

Hanford: When Jessica entered high school, she had dreams, of going to NYU, becoming a writer. She needed to understand how doing better in school, 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, and build the kind of academic record that could get her into a top school like NYU.

Biology teacher: Okay here's what I'd like to do, first two tests the one you took on Friday, I've got that graded and the one you took yesterday, I got that graded.

McLaughlin: You think I did good?

Biology teacher: You're going to find out in two minutes.

Hanford: RJ McLaughlin has nearly made it to the end of 10th grade, though it hasn't been a very satisfying year. 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 thinks about becoming a zoologist. He loves animals, especially snakes.

McLaughlin: In my biology class, we have this chapter 36 that I want to get to. I'm waitin' to get chapter 36, it's all about reptiles. I put my life on it. I get an A in that section or whatever.

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

McLaughlin: Hey coach, we gonna do reptiles?

Biology teacher: Eventually.

McLaughlin: I hope so, only 30 something days left. Okay, we're on page 890 for a few minutes.

Hanford: RJ tunes out. And then the teacher hands back a test. RJ won't show the grade, but clearly he didn't do well.

McLaughlin: I'm pissed off. I'm pissed off. I'm tired of studying. I can't just. Ummmm!

RJ's jaw is tight. He's punching the air. For the rest of the class, he's annoyed and distracted.


Hanford: RJ's biology class never gets to the chapter on reptiles. But by the end of the year, RJ's just anxious for school to be over. He takes his state tests. And he 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.

Adams: You're on a roll.

Giardullo: And, ahh, marketing, I passed that. English, I passed that. Like if I didn't pass marketing, I think I would jump out your window there, 'cause that's a little ridiculous.

Hanford: Jessica Giardullo has done well on the state tests. She stops by to see Jo Adams, and report on her success.

Adams: I'm proud of you for your biology, that's a tough one too.

Giardullo: You mean geometry?

Adams: No biology I guessed. I don't know anything about Civics and Economics either.

Hanford: Adams and Jessica 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, those dreams have faded.

Giardullo: We all know that's not going to happen. I mean I'd have to all of a sudden make straight As and get a huge scholarship. I don't even know how you'd go about getting a scholarship for a school that is like a gazillion hours away. But, I might try going to Guilford College, just 'cause it's like five minutes away from my house.

Adams: Oh, boy I got some more, what's that? Huh, I got another one!

Hanford: Jo Adams' plans for the future have changed too. She has decided to leave Western Guilford High School. During the final week of classes, Jessica and some of Adams' other students from last year surprise her by hiding goodbye notes in her desk.

Adams: I'm like on an Easter egg hunt. I don't even know where she put the other one.

Jessica: There's one! Yes, mine. Oh there it is, I think I spelled it wrong, now you know it's from me.

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.

Hanford: 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.

Adams: He says, okay, 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. That just excites me. I mean, it's been a long time since I've been a part of something like that.

Adams: And if you don't stay in touch with me I am going to haunt you. Alright. I'll stay in touch. Be good and stay out of trouble. Go so I can eat. Before I start cryin' or something. Bye.

Hanford: 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, She says she's going to keep trying, in her own way, as long as she can find a school that will let her.


Smith: You've been listening to an American RadioWorks documentary, "Put to the Test" from American Public Media. It was produced in cooperation with North Carolina Public Radio- WUNC.

"Put to the Test" was reported and produced by Emily Hanford, Alison Jones, Ben Shapiro and Deborah George. It was edited by Mary Beth Kirchner and mixed by Ben Shapiro with help from Craig Thorson. The American RadioWorks team includes Ellen Guettler, Sasha Aslanian, Ochen Kaylan, Laurie Stern, Katherine Lewis and Courtney Stein. At American Public Media, Joann Eichten and Enrique Olivarez.

This is Stephen Smith. Check out our website: You'll find all of our documentary projects there, and you can also sign up for our podcast. That'

Support for this program was provided in part by the Spencer Foundation. Major Funding for American RadioWorks is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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