In recent years, standardized testing in the United States has come under considerable scrutiny. Since the passage of No Child Left Behind, many have questioned whether it has improved the quality of education or driven teachers to teach to the test.

St. Louis No 1 Cemetery, March 2010.

While assessment scores have improved in New Orleans schools in recent years, there are a few members of the community who are unhappy about how test results are applied. These test takers drive horse drawn carriages, wander through cemeteries, and relay stories of New Orleans’ ghosts and haunts. Clearly, they are not school children; they are New Orleans tour guides.

While the South generally eschews regulation, it is interesting that the City of New Orleans, through the Ground Transportation division city’s Department of Safety and Permits, requires that all guides they pass a test  and submit to background checks and drug tests before receiving a license to operate tours.  Thus the City is pretty careful to make sure that the some 550 tour guides throughout the City know their history, architecture, and culture (or won’t endanger a coach full of tourists while in a drug-induced stupor). For that reason, the City requires that all guides take a comprehensive test that includes New Orleans facts, but also the rules and regulations governing tour guides.

The 70-question exam is largely taken “The Beautiful Crescent: A History of New Orleans,” by Joan B. Garvey and Mary Lou Widmer. According to established guides, “The Beautiful Crescent” should be the source for members of the profession, since it covers most of what tour participants might ask. And the City agrees, since it has been cracking down and increasing enforcement since this past summer. In addition to the test, they are requiring biennial background checks. A number of guides find this rigorous enforcement onerous; however, four guides went further and filed suits that the City’s regulations and the test, in particular, are a violation of their free speech under the First Amendment.

Jackson Square and Decatur Street, March 2010.

Reaction form the City’s guides has been mixed. While many find the City’s application of the regulations to be burdensome, they generally agree that standards lend credibility to their profession. And it is permissible for tour guides to be licensed through exams offered by the Friends of the Cabildo  or through courses offered by Delgado Community College, which are more strict.

Although it is often difficult to predict judicial outcomes, I truly hope that the court supports the rigorous requirements for New Orleans tour guides. Over the years, I have taken part in numerous tours and listened in on countless others. I have been quite impressed with the knowledge these guides display and have learned a considerable amount from them. I’d hate to see the quality of what they offer be watered down. The result would be a disservice to the City and visitors, as well.