During the 1970s, nearly every state in the nation began instituting tests of basic skills for high school students as the leading edge of the so-called “first wave” of education reforms. These reforms were a response to the widespread impression that test scores and the quality of public schooling were in decline. According to critics, the high school diploma, once a true accomplishment, had been debased in an era of social promotion and low standards – to the point where it held no real meaning for postsecondary institutions or potential employers.
The pace of reform was greatly accelerated with the release in 1983 of the blue-ribbon report A Nation at Rist. A chief cause of the nation’s educational decline, the report ventured, was the “cafeteria-style curriculum” that allowed students to pursue a diffuse and unchallenging course of study. The report recommended that states require students to take a minimum number of courses in core academic subjects in order to graduate from high school. As a result, by 1992 nearly every state had increased its graduation requirements in the core academic areas. However, only three states, Florida, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania, had met the standard recommended by the Risk report: four years of English and at least three years each of social studies, science, and math.