Higher expectations also translate into increased accountability.
Educators say there has been an increased emphasis nationwide on standardized testing in recent years.
Robert Patton, the principal of East Burke Middle School in Icard, said that he's seen plenty of changes in his 24 years as a school principal but that the "biggest change is that state focus on the standard course of study."
The standard course of study dictates when and how subjects will be taught. Students are tested on the material by standardized tests beginning in the third grade and continuing through high school. Before the tests were implemented, the standard course of study was not strictly enforced.
Beginning this academic year, children in grades three, five and eight will have to perform at grade level on end-of-grade tests to be automatically promoted to the next grade. North Carolina has also considered implementing a high school exit exam by 2005.
Proponents of standardized testing claim the tests set a common standard for all students and can quickly identify areas where children perform poorly.
"The focus is not on testing; the focus is on the curriculum," said Johnston County Schools Superintendent Jim Causby. Standardized testing helps keep teachers on task, he said. "There's very little wasted time in school anymore."
But many states have gone "test crazy," said Robert Schaeffer, spokesman for FairTest, a group opposed to widespread standardized testing. "More testing doesn't improve education any more than weighing a baby more frequently makes it bigger and stronger," he said.
A growing number of students, teachers and parents oppose standardized testing, he said, including local officials who resent national interference in state-run education systems.
"There is a backlash, a rebellion against classrooms becoming test-coaching centers," he said. "The heavier the hand of testing, the more backlash there's going to be."
But students aren't the only ones being put to the test. In 1996, North Carolina adopted the ABCs accountability program, which holds schools and teachers responsible for student performance.
One part of the ABCs ranks schools on the basis of student performance, with the state sending in assistance teams to help low-performing schools or even replace staff.
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The program also measures growth in student achievement: Teachers at schools who meet test score improvement goals receive bonuses.
North Carolina is one of the first states to implement such programs.
"We've become a real national leader," Causby said.
A Tailored Education
Despite an increased focus on standardized testing, individual attention and personalized education also are hot topics. English as a second language classes provide special instruction for the increasing number of non-native English-speaking children in the state, and smaller class sizes are popular.
In Burke County, Patton said, schools restrict class sizes in first through third grade to 15 students per teacher. Children learn better in smaller classrooms, he said. "No question about it."
The trend also can be seen in middle schools, where grades are divided into "teams" designed to give each child more attention and provide a more nurturing environment.
"Middle schools have gone from being clones of the high schools ... to being structured to fit the needs of today's adolescents," said Dorsey Harris, a specialist at the N.C. Association of Educators' Center for Teaching and Learning and a retired middle school teacher.
In middle and high schools, the four-classes-per-day block schedule strives to give students more time with the same instructors. High schools also tailor curricula more to the individual than in the past, offering more advanced placement courses and career guidance.
Students aren't the only ones with more education options from which to choose -- many parents today can choose the school their child attends.
Madeleine Grumet, dean of the UNC School of Education, said charter schools, which are smaller and allow more creativity with curriculum than traditional schools, are linked with parents' desire for more individual attention.
"If the public schools seem too large and impersonal, you're going to be attracted to (charter schools)."
Charter schools, which are funded by the same tax dollars that support traditional public schools, have become increasingly popular since first opening in North Carolina in 1997. Today the state has 95 operating and five more approved charter schools.
But Grumet said many people are concerned that charter schools will undermine the existing public school system because they threaten to divert funding away from traditional schools. While charter schools were originally designed to provide a breath of fresh air to the education system, she noted, most simply replicate existing public schools.
It remains too early to tell if the new initiatives will make a difference.
The state's average SAT scores are on the rise -- in 2001, the state's average score increased four points from the previous year to 992 -- but scores still fall below the national average of 1020.
According to the 2000 Census, North Carolina had the second highest dropout rate in the nation, compared to the 10th highest in 1990.
But the problem might be getting better.
Only 5.7 percent of students dropped out of high school during the 2000-01 school year, compared to 6.4 percent the previous year.
But research has shown that people view the public school system in a more positive light today -- perhaps as a result of the new initiatives.
The 2001 Carolina Poll by UNC's School of Journalism and Mass Communication found that North Carolinians are more satisfied with public education: 58.7 percent of those polled in 2001 gave their schools grades of "A" or "B," up from only 42 percent in 1993.
"People more and more see education as the key that unlocks their economic future," Hunt said.
"We have a long way to go in many respects, but our goal is to have the best public schools in America by 2010."
The State & National Editor can be reached at email@example.com.