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A Mistake We Can’t Repeat

By Nancy S. Grasmick — January 10, 2001 5 min read
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Setting high standards for students is an urgent national priority. But to stay the course, we must understand what went wrong last time around.

Someone once quipped that everyone who has ever heard George Santayana’s famous remark, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” is destined to repeat it. At the risk of falling into this trap, let me suggest that we are in danger of repeating a huge mistake that school reformers made a quarter-century ago. We must avoid doing so.

In the mid-1970s, American employers were complaining that high school diplomas no longer assured that their holders had the knowledge and skills for entry- level jobs. Legislatures in two-thirds of the states responded by establishing exit exams and other hoops through which students would have to jump in order to graduate from high school.

Within a few years, however, what came to be known as the “minimum-competency movement” was dead in the water. Little heed had been paid to the educational interventions that would be required to assure that most students made it through the new hoops.

With the ‘minimum competency movement,’ little heed was paid to the interventions required to assure that students could make it through the hoops.

When it became clear that substantial numbers of students would not be getting diplomas, legislators backed off. Tests were made easier and passing grades lowered until a political comfort zone—something on the order of no more than one in 20 students flunking—was reached. Frustrated employers were left to stew in their own juices.

We are now in the midst of another—and far more ambitious— national effort to enhance academic standards in our nation’s schools. In recent years, legislatures in 49 states have published standards spelling out what students at various grade levels are expected to know and to be able to do in core academic subjects, and a majority have backed them up with exit exams. In my own state of Maryland, for example, starting with the class of 2005, students will be required to pass exams in English, mathematics, U.S. government, and other subjects in order to receive their diplomas.

As in the late 1970s, the predictable backlash has already begun. Educators in Virginia, Massachusetts, California, and other states have started to calculate how many students are likely to fall short of the new academic requirements, and cries are being heard to soften or even scrap the new requirements.

Such a scenario would be a national tragedy. Setting high academic standards for our future workers, citizens, and parents is an even more urgent national priority than it was a quarter-century ago.

But to stay the course, we must understand what went wrong the last time around. The minimum-competency movement faltered because sanctions got out ahead of the hard work necessary to prepare students to succeed.


In Maryland, we have assumed from the outset that, if we are to be serious about raising student-achievement levels in our schools, we need more than high academic expectations for students and meaningful consequences if they fail to meet them. We also need adequate interventions to make sure that every student has the opportunity to succeed.

Setting the standards and laying out the consequences were the easy parts. There is a growing consensus among educators across the country about what students should know and be able to do in core academic subjects at various grade levels. Political and educational leaders in Maryland also agreed that tests are an appropriate means to enforce the new standards.

Figuring out how to make sure every student has a fair shot at passing the exams, however, is complicated. Last year, the Maryland state board of education adopted a plan called “Every Child Achieving,” based on two principles.

Setting standards is easy. Figuring out how to make sure every student has a fair shot at passing the starndardized exams is the hard part.

Many experts don’t like the rigid structure of the Direct Instruction reform model, but a sizable body of research says it can raise achievement.

First, teachers must be trained to teach to the new standards. Running a classroom in such a way that all students may reach a high level of proficiency is a fundamentally different pedagogical task from the one teachers faced in an earlier era when only a few needed to reach such heights. Teachers need help in meeting this new challenge.

Thus, in Maryland, we have instituted requirements that all new teachers enter the profession with either a major in the content area they will teach or, in the case of elementary teachers, a firm grasp of core subjects. Local school systems now provide all beginning teachers with mentors, and the state is developing a resource bank of effective professional-development strategies.

Second, we must respect different circumstances of learning. For reasons that are often far beyond their control, different students require differing amounts of resources and attention in order to achieve. In Maryland, we have implemented new assessment systems that will permit constant monitoring of each student’s progress. When a student begins to fall behind, an individualized learning plan is drawn up that specifies extra help during or after the school day or on Saturdays. Students who fail to meet established proficiency levels by the end of grade 8 must attend summer school and, if they still fall short of expectations, they enter high school with an individually designed assistance program.

Last year, the state board of education asked the governor and the legislature for $49 million to finance the intervention necessary to assure that every student had a realistic opportunity to meet the new standards. Significantly, when only $12 million was appropriated for that purpose, a decision was made not to abandon the new standards but to push back the date when passing the exam would become a condition for receiving a high school diploma.

Twenty-five years ago, we abandoned the push for higher standards because we allowed sanctions to get out ahead of the hard work of intervening to make sure that teachers and students were prepared to meet them. We cannot afford to make the same mistake again.


Nancy S. Grasmick has been the state superintendent of schools in Maryland since 1991 and was awarded the Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education for 2000.

A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2001 edition of Education Week as A Mistake We Can’t Repeat

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