To Keith Beamon, the answer seemed simple enough. If you want to raise test scores, make students more accountable for their performance. And how best to make them accountable? Advance them for scoring well and hold them back when they test poorly.
But after a year of parent protests that led to a federal lawsuit, Mr. Beamon and other Johnston County school officials no longer see their new policy as such a straightforward solution.
Despite students' rising scores under the year-old system, the plan requiring students to pass an exam before they can be promoted to the next grade faces powerful opposition.
Parents claim the schools are abandoning their neediest students by failing them. School officials counter that they are merely identifying pupils who require special instruction and then providing it for them.
"Our view of retention is different from some parents' views of retention," says Beamon, who oversees the county's testing policy. "We feel that after taking [all the steps of the policy] into account, if the child still fails, that child needs some extra time and extra attention."
The tug of war has pushed this quiet farming community into the midst of a fractious national debate over end-of-grade testing. School systems from Texas to Massachusetts - as well as President Clinton - are calling for stricter curriculum standards and regular testing in response to concerns about poor student performance.
Johnston County is one of the first school systems to link tests with promotion - and it offers an early look at the many questions that arise when schools fail students who don't pass end-of-grade tests. Can one test measure a student's performance? What services are offered to students who fail? Does this system put minority and special-education students at a disadvantage? Does failing a student do more damage than good by lowering his or her self-esteem?
"We're seeing the attention really go down to the student, because they were left out of the equation of accountability before," says Kathy Christie of the Education Commission of the States in Denver. "As a result, we're seeing the Chicagos and the Johnston Counties pop up," she says, referring to exam policies in both places.
The Johnston County policy is laid out like this: Students whose performances appear to be lagging get remedial training - from in-school tutoring to extra instruction on Saturdays. If they are still struggling midway through the year, parents are notified that their child may be held back.
At the end of the school year, third-graders and up take reading and math exams. They must score within a range the state has set as a passing grade. If students do not pass, their teachers can appeal their cases. In addition, students receive extra remediation and can take the test again. If they fail a second time, they can attend summer school and take the test a third time. If they fail that test, they are held back.
Last year, 9 percent of Johnston County's 18,000 students were retained - most of them elementary and middle- school pupils. The year before the policy was adopted, 2 percent of the students were not promoted.
In many ways, the county has done what it set out to do: improve its schools' performance compared with other North Carolina systems. Last year, the state recognized 20 out of 23 Johnston County schools for achieving above-average improvement in their students' work. At those schools, teachers were rewarded with $1,000 bonuses.
"This was unbelievable," Beamon says. "We're not a system that's used to being recognized for excellence in our schools." Johnston County, 25 miles southeast of Raleigh, is now ranked among the top districts in North Carolina in terms of improved student performance.
But numbers don't tell the whole story. The policy has also alienated parents, who first formed a group to protest the new policy and then sued the district in federal court, saying the policy is unfair and discriminates against minority and special-ed students.
"Our take is, put the policy on hold, get the teachers on track, and make sure the test measures what it's supposed to measure," says Karen Price, a mother of three who founded Educate Our Children in response to the county's testing plan. "The county's making the rules up as they go. Everything's been handled haphazardly."
She tells of children who earned A's, B's, and C's in school, failed the test by 2 points (well within its margin of error), and were not promoted. Teachers, she says, were not told in time what they needed to present on a child's behalf to appeal a failure. She claims the appeals process itself was biased: In some schools, teachers appealed test scores, while in others, no appeals were filed. One child was promoted only to arrive at school in the fall and have administrators tell her she would have to repeat a grade.
Ms. Price says the most important part of the policy - remediation the child is supposed to get before taking the test - was inadequate or nonexistent last year.
"Just because something's written down doesn't mean it's being followed," she says. "I'm not against making children and parents accountable, but ... you have to make sure the children are receiving what they need."
One difficulty is that services offered to children vary from school to school because the district allows each school to implement the policy in its own way.
School administrators recognize that few new resources were allocated for the extra work expected from teachers. And they admit to snags in the program last year. "It was not perfect," Beamon says. "We had to go back and redo some of the appeals. But we're getting it worked out."
Even with the difficulties of a first-year program, though, the teachers and the principal at Wilson's Mills elementary school in Johnston County say the results were positive. Now that end-of-year exams count for something, teachers say students take their classes more seriously.
"It puts high expectations in the forefront," says principal Phyllis Mitchell. The policy has enabled the school to work more closely with its underachievers, as well. "Some of our greatest gains were made with children with the greatest difficulties," she says.
Throughout the months of controversy, the satisfaction from better results has kept Beamon holding on, he says. "The stress has paid off by the kids learning like they never have before," he says, with a weary smile.
TEST QUESTIONS FOR JOHNSTON COUNTY, N.C.
Examples of the kinds of questions used to test reading comprehension and math.
* Essay: 'Imitating Nature'
Can you think of other uses of Velcro that were not mentioned in this pas-sage? List your uses and explain how Velcro would be useful for each one.
* Sartorial math
Joey has a red shirt, a yellow shirt and a blue shirt. He also has a pair of shorts in each of the three colors. How many different outfits can he make? Show how you got the answer.
* Essay: 'Futureworld: Robots'
Explain how Asimov uses the example of the first Industrial Revolution to answer possible objections to his vision for another "industrial revolution."
Compare 0.36 to 0.36. Which decimal is larger? Use fractions with like denominators to prove that your answer is true.
Source: North Carolina Department of Public Instruction