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Just before he left office, former Governor Jim Hunt wrote (with a little bit of help from me, I’m proud to say) a book about education. He said in it that North Carolina’s education-reform efforts had been hampered for decades by a start-and-stop approach. The state would start a good initiative, then lose interest and momentum. Then another train would come along, and the state would jump on that for a while.

The same thing may now be happening to a key part of Hunt’s reforms: higher standards and greater accountability.

Testing and standards got a bad name with Democrats when they became associated with President Bush’s No Child Left Behind. That was a start-and-stop if there ever was one.

But the real impetus for standards and accountability in North Carolina started a decade before, when Hunt was elected for his third and fourth terms.

After he lost to Jesse Helms in 1984, Hunt did more than make money. He spent a lot of time studying education. After eight years, he came back into the Governor’s Office with three education priorities:

  • More focus on helping get ready for school in the first years of life, which led to Smart Start and to Governor Easley’s More at Four;

  • Raising teacher pay to the national average, a goal North Carolina reached before Hunt left office;

  • Setting higher standards for what students learn, and holding educators accountable for results. That led to today’s testing program.

Now come the calls for retreat on testing. Chris Fitzsimon of N.C. Policy Watch wrote an op-ed in The News & Observer Monday headlined “Make students, not the tests, our priority.”

Well, it’s not a choice between tests and students. The point of tests is to identify students who need help.

Think of tests – if they’re good ones – as measuring student learning. If students aren’t learning enough, we have to change things. But we won’t know unless we check. And some students – especially minority and poor students – may get way behind.

No doubt it’s hard to get this right. And no doubt there have been problems in the testing program.

But I have a strong suspicion that North Carolina – once again – is backing down from the sustained commitment that education reform requires.

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