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Education Statistics Quarterly
Vol 5, Issue 3, Topic: Elementary and Secondary Education
Overview and Inventory of State Education Reforms: 1990 to 2000
By: David Hurst, Alexandra Tan, Anne Meek, and Jason Sellers
This article was originally published as the Executive Summary of the Compendium of the same name. The data are primarily from reports published by a number of organizations, listed at the end of this article.

State governments play a critical role in providing public elementary and secondary education. State constitutional, statutory, and regulatory frameworks provide the legal authority for state governments, local governments, and school districts to raise revenues for education; they also set conditions for spending these funds. State policies are associated with nearly every facet of education, typically defining, for instance, when children must be in school, who may teach them, and what they are expected to learn.

The purpose of this report is to describe developments in state-level education policies that occurred during the 1990s and to use a wide range of sources to characterize these reform efforts at the state level. In doing so, this report extends an earlier National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report, Overview and Inventory of State Requirements for School Coursework and Attendance (Medrich et al. 1992), which examined state-level reform efforts during the 1980s. Similar to the first report's mandate to discuss reform in the 1980s, this report examines education policy developments of the 1990s.

State Education Reforms in the 1990s

Although public education has long been the subject of debate and reform efforts, the past decade is notable for the type and volume of state-level education policy activity. In particular, the 1990s continued a trend from the 1980s in which states shifted their focus from educational inputs, such as per-student expenditures on instructional materials, to educational outcomes, such as the percentage of students attaining a score of "proficient" on a statewide assessment. State governments passed legislation, adopted new procedures and standards, and pursued policies in a number of areas that reflected a new emphasis on outcomes over inputs. To facilitate discussion of the diverse set of education policies states adopted during the past decade, this report groups these reform efforts into four broad categories:

  • standards, assessment, and accountability;
  • school finance reforms;
  • teacher training and school resources; and
  • school choice options.
These categories reflect the primary ways in which states have sought to change the provision of education. The first category-standards, assessments, and accountability-includes those policies that attempt to directly affect the achievement levels of students by specifying what students should learn and be able to do. The second category-school finance reforms-reflects a long-standing capacity of states to affect education by modifying the way in which revenues for public education are raised, distributed, and spent. The third category-teacher training and school resources-includes policies that may have an indirect effect on student achievement by changing, for example, the way in which teachers are trained. Finally, the fourth category-school choice options-includes efforts to give parents more choices in where they send their children to school. The following section provides a more detailed description of these reform areas.

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Standards, Assessment, and Accountability

Much of the legislative activity related to education in the 1990s focused on raising academic standards and holding schools accountable for student performance. This report describes four components of these efforts: content standards, performance standards, assessments, and accountability systems. Content standards define what students should know and be able to do, while performance standards indicate how well students must perform to be considered proficient in a given subject area. Statewide assessments measure student progress toward attaining the goals defined by content and performance standards, and accountability systems are intended to collect the information necessary to hold schools and school districts responsible for the performance of students.

Surveys conducted by organizations such as the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) revealed that by the late 1990s most states had one or more of these components in place. Between 1995 and 2000, for example, the number of states that had developed English/language arts standards increased from 20 to 49 (CCSSO 2000a). Increases were found in other subjects as well. The number of states that had developed mathematics standards grew from 25 to 49, science standards from 23 to 46, and social studies/history standards from 20 to 46. States also typically specify a set of performance standards that correspond to content standards. These performance standards often indicate the scores a student must make on a statewide assessment to be considered proficient in a given area.

Measuring student progress toward attaining the goals defined by content and performance standards is central to standards-based reform efforts, and statewide testing programs were the focus of much attention during the 1990s. One area of concern has been the degree to which the subject matter and skill level of statewide assessments are consistent with state content standards. In an effort to align assessments with standards, some states have diversified their testing programs by adding items or assessments designed to mirror the material covered in the state's content standards and by adding performance-based assessment items, such as short answers and open-ended tasks. As reported in Education Week's Quality Counts 2001, most states assessed students a number of times between 1st and 12th grade-48 states administered at least one exam in 8th grade and 43 states did so in 4th grade. While English/language arts and mathematics were the most frequently tested subjects, many states also regularly assessed student performance in history/social studies and science as well. Nearly all states included multiple-choice tests in their assessment programs, 38 states included short answer items, 46 used extended-response items in English exams, and 7 states used extended-response questions in assessments of other subjects.

States have also conveyed the results of assessments and other indicators of student performance to parents and the public through institutional "report cards." Institutional report cards generally are issued annually and may be issued at the state, district, and/or school levels. Publishing these report cards is one way in which states have sought to hold schools and districts accountable for student performance. In 2000, the CCSSO collected information on the type of reporting conducted by each state. All state education agencies reported having at least one annual accountability or indicator report as of September 2000: 46 states issued at least one report providing statistics at the district level, and 40 states and the District of Columbia did so at the school level (CCSSO 2000b).

School Finance Reforms

In order to provide the instruction necessary for students to obtain the high levels of achievement envisioned by the standards-based reform efforts of the 1990s, schools must have adequate financial resources. This report examines a number of reforms implemented by states that affect the way they raise revenues, allocate funds among districts, and allow funds to be used. Three key areas of state education finance reforms are examined: moving from equity to adequacy, general revenue reforms, and special education financing reforms.

One of the aims of state education finance systems has been to foster equity among the resources available to school districts within the state (Ladd and Hansen 1999). Recent legal challenges to state financing systems have shifted to focus on adequacy, seeking to compel states to define and provide a high-quality education for all children, rather than focusing primarily on reducing resource inequalities across school districts (Ladd and Hansen 1999). States have faced a number of challenges as they have sought to define and provide an adequate education. Included among these challenges are defining adequacy; determining the cost of obtaining adequacy; inflation; and adjusting for school, student, and geographic cost differences. The various ways that states have responded to these challenges are discussed in this report.

A second type of finance reform discussed in this report concerns efforts to make state revenue systems more fair, efficient, or balanced. Shifts away from local property taxes have had impacts on the mix of revenues used for financing schools in particular states (Ladd and Hansen 1999). Michigan, for example, passed legislation in 1993 that abolished local school property taxes, despite the state's traditional heavy reliance on local property taxes as revenue for education (Courant, Gramlich, and Loeb 1995). These revenues were replaced by an increase in the state sales tax and the adoption of a statewide property tax, along with other revenue sources.

Finally, reforms in special education finance include changes in the way states distribute funds to districts and new policies to finance special education services using revenues from multiple sources. Since 1988, Medicaid funds must be used to reimburse Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)-related medically necessary services before IDEA funds are used (U.S. General Accounting Office 1999).

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Teacher Training and School Resources

The standards-based reform efforts described in this report are intended to ensure that all students attain high levels of competence in all subject areas. Attaining these goals, however, depends in part on the resources in schools, including the effectiveness of teachers. During the 1990s, a number of states reexamined the process by which teachers are trained and certified. Concerns over the academic rigor of teacher training programs, the strength of the certification process, the match between training programs and teaching assignments, and the type and availability of professional development opportunities have led many states to consider applying a similar model of reform to teacher training as they have to student achievement. This model is centered on standards, testing, and accountability.

This report outlines the general process by which teachers are traditionally certified, which typically includes taking a prescribed course of study in college, passing one or more competency tests, completing student teaching requirements, and, once certified, maintaining certification by participating in professional development activities or taking additional coursework. A nontraditional, alternative certification model, which is intended to move highly qualified subject matter experts not currently in the teaching profession through preparation and certification more quickly than traditional routes, is outlined as well.

A number of states either established or revised standards for obtaining a teaching license during the 1990s (CCSSO 2000a). According to the CCSSO, "standards for teachers define the knowledge and skills teachers should have to provide quality instruction to students at given age or grade levels and specific content areas" (CCSSO 1998, p. 26). A CCSSO survey conducted in 2000 found that a majority of states licensed or certified teachers based on state standards and that most of these states had either developed or revised their statewide teaching standards since 1990 (CCSSO 2000a). Most state teaching standards specify the type of coursework that a prospective teacher should complete while in college. While most prospective teachers are expected to complete a core set of education classes, including classes such as teaching methods, child development, and supervised teaching experience, those wishing to earn a certificate to teach secondary school students may also be required to take a certain number of hours in the subject they plan on teaching, such as mathematics or English. In 1999, according to Education Week (2000), nearly all states set minimum subject-area coursework requirements for high school teachers and about half had established such requirements for middle school teachers. Of the few states without standards, most indicated that they were soon to be in effect or were being developed. In addition to developing new standards for teacher education and certification, states implemented other measures in the 1990s to modify school resources, such as funding prekindergarten programs and increasing the number of required high school credits in core academic subjects. A number of states have adopted policies that are intended to ensure that key instructional resources such as textbooks are aligned with the state's content standards. Class size reduction-including its potentially negative financial implications and effects on teacher supply and quality- also received attention during the 1990s. The Education Commission of the States (ECS) reported that as of June 1999, 20 states had some sort of initiative to limit the student/teacher ratio to 20 or fewer students per teacher (ECS 1999).

School Choice Options

While states focused attention during the 1990s on reforming education finance systems and increasing the learning resources and academic standards of traditional public schools, they also adopted legislation intended to provide more parents with choice in where their children attend school. The report discusses four approaches states have taken toward meeting this goal. Public school choice allows students to attend the public school that they and their families select, while charter schools give parents the option of sending their children to a public school that operates largely independently of the local school district. In addition, some states have adopted policies that provide public support for private education in the form of tax credits, vouchers, or other resources for parents who send their children to private schools. Homeschooling is now an option in all states (Lines 2001), although states do not necessarily provide financial or other support for parents who homeschool.

The ECS reports that as of February 2001, 32 states had passed legislation permitting or requiring some form of public school choice. Throughout the 1990s, the number of states that adopted charter school legislation also increased, from 1 state (Minnesota) in 1991 to 36 states and the District of Columbia in September 1999. Similarly, the number of charter schools in operation increased during the 1990s. Almost 1,500 charter schools were in operation as of September 1999, about twice the number of charter schools operating in September 1997 (Nelson et al. 2000; Berman et al. 1998). Enrollment in charter schools represented about 0.8 percent of all public school students in the 26 states and the District of Columbia that had charter schools in operation in 1998-99 (Nelson et al. 2000).

Allowing open enrollment in public schools and enabling the creation of charter schools are both ways in which states have sought to provide greater choice in public education. Proposals have also been made to increase private school choice by using public funds to subsidize the cost of private school attendance (Moffit, Garrett, and Smith 2001). Several states, for example, permitted the limited use of public funds to support private education in the form of transportation, textbooks, and various auxiliary services. Less common were programs that used public funds to cover part or all of private school tuition. In Vermont and Maine, public funds have been used for many years to help cover tuition costs at nonsectarian schools for students living in areas in which a public school is not readily accessible. Since 1989, three states-Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida-have passed legislation enabling the creation of voucher programs. Another education option available to parents in all 50 states and the District of Columbia is to homeschool their children. The 1999 National Household Education Surveys Program (NHES) found that 850,000 students nationwide, or 1.7 percent of U.S. students ages 5 to 17, were homeschooled in spring 1999 (Bielick, Chandler, and Broughman 2001).

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Berman, P., Nelson, B., Ericson, J., Perry, R., and Silverman, D. (1998). A National Study of Charter Schools: Second Year Report. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Bielick, S., Chandler, K., and Broughman, S.P. (2001). Home-schooling in the United States: 1999 (NCES 2001-033). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Council of Chief State School Officers. (1998). Key State Education Policies on K-12 Education: Standards, Graduation, Assessment, Teacher Licensure, Time and Attendance, 1998. Washington, DC: Author.

Council of Chief State School Officers. (2000a). Key State Education Policies on K-12 Education: Time and Attendance, Graduation Requirements, Content Standards, Teacher Licensure, School Leader Licensure, Student Assessment: 2000. Washington, DC: Author.

Council of Chief State School Officers. (2000b). State Education Accountability Reports and Indicator Reports: Status of Reports Across the States-2000. Washington, DC: Author.

Courant, P.N., Gramlich, E.M., and Loeb, S. (1995). Michigan's Recent School Finance Reforms: A Preliminary Report. American Economic Review, 85(2): 372-377.

Education Commission of the States. (1999). State Class-Size Reduction Measures. Denver, CO: Author. Available: [retrieved June 13, 2001].

Education Week. (2000). Quality Counts 2000: Who Should Teach?, 19(18).

Education Week. (2001). Quality Counts 2001: A Better Balance: Standards, Tests, and the Tools to Succeed, 20(17).

Ladd, H.F., and Hansen, J.S. (Eds.). (1999). Making Money Matter: Financing America's Schools. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Available: [retrieved June 11, 2001].

Lines, P.M. (2001). Homeschooling. Eugene, OR: University of Oregon, Clearinghouse on Educational Management (ERIC Digest 151 EDO-EA-01-08).

Medrich, E.A., Brown, C.L., Henke, R.H., Ross, L., and McArthur, E. (1992). Overview and Inventory of State Requirements for School Coursework and Attendance (NCES 92-663). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Moffit, R.E., Garrett, J.J., and Smith, J.A. (Eds.) (2001). School Choice 2001: What's Happening in the States. Washington, DC: The Heritage Foundation.

Nelson, B., Berman, P., Ericson, J., Kamprath, N., Perry, R., Silverman, D., and Solomon, D. (2000). The State of Charter Schools 2000: Fourth-Year Report. U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: Office of Educational Research and Improvement. Available: [retrieved June 11, 2001].

U.S. General Accounting Office. (1999). Medicaid and Special Education: Coordination of Services for Children With Disabilities Is Evolving (GAO/HEHS-00-20). Washington, DC: Author.

Data sources: Reports published by the Center for Special Education Finance, Council of Chief State School Officers, Education Commission of the States, Education Week, Families and Work Institute, National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education & Certification, and National Conference of State Legislators, as well as NCES, the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, and the Office of the Under Secretary, U.S. Depart-ment of Education.

For technical information, see the complete report:

Hurst, D., Tan., A., Meek, A., and Sellers, J. (2003). Overview and Inventory of State Education Reforms: 1990 to 2000 (NCES 2003-020).

Author affiliations: D. Hurst, A. Tan, A. Meek, and J. Sellers, Education Statistics Services Institute.

For questions about content, contact Lisa Hudson (

To obtain the complete report (NCES 2003-020), call the toll-free ED Pubs number (877-433-7827) or visit the NCES Electronic Catalog (

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