The pathways and similar policies in other states are the latest chapter in the national push for increased accountability in public education. Almost two decades ago, the current standardsbased reform movement was initiated when the Reagan Administration backed A Nation at Risk, a presidential commission report on American education. This heavily promoted document declared there to be a crisis in public education where "the educational foundations of our society are being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people." Implicit in this document - and more explicit in the rhetoric that accompanied it - was the need for reform by business-minded experts who understood the demands presented by "a world of ever-accelerating competition and change in the conditions of the workplace." The chosen remedy was a more corporate, results-driven approach to education using standardized testing and increasing curricular requirements to measure and spur students while holding teachers and schools accountable. The approach was sold to state leaders at national and regional education summits - commonly sponsored by corporate giants like IBM - over the next decade and a half.
North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt, a Democrat, has been a vocal proponent of these reforms, and in 1993 he appointed members to the North Carolina Education Standard and Accountability Commission. Largely composed of corporate leaders, this powerful commission would drive state educational policy for years to come.
In 1994, the state announced it was changing the competency requirements for high school graduates. No longer would the state rely on the traditional 10th grade competency test, a minimum performance measure in math, reading, and writing. Instead, end-of-grade test scores in math and reading for eighth graders were used to screen incoming high school freshmen. Those who had failed to score at a certain level were forced to take a formal competency test in high school.
Two years later, Hunt initiated the ABCs of Public Education, the current accountability system that measures and compares testing results for all K- 12 public schools. End-of-grade tests were instituted in grades three through eight while end-of-course tests were established at the high school level. Once implemented, these tests carried serious consequences regarding both a student's and a school's performance. For the student, failing such an exam became ample grounds for retention. In Durham, one of the pilot cities for the program in 1999, a district-high 663 students were held back after failing the test. Of those retained, 565 were Black. (Recently, due to public pressure, a law was passed forbidding the use of standardized test scores as the sole criterion for student retention in North Carolina.)
Students are not the only ones who suffer from North Carolina's harsh standards. Schools where students don't test well are publicly labeled "low-performing;" their teachers and administrators can be dismissed; or the state can take over the schools. Based on the most recent figures from the 2000-2001 school year, 26 schools that offer a high school curriculum were designated as "low-performing." Fifteen of these schools were taken over by state assistance teams.