These changes did not come about in a vacuum. To be sure, they represented a response to the well-documented shortcomings of the Title I program as it existed for its first 30 years. But the new law also fit squarely within the reform context of the early 1990s. Specifically, the law's focus on standards for student performance, and its premise that all students are expected to meet challenging standards, conformed to the emphasis in the reform movement on standards as the fulcrum of redesigned schools and school systems. Many of the most prominent reform efforts of the era, notably the Kentucky Education Reform Act, the most sweeping statewide reform statute in history, share this focus on standards and are considered examples of “standards-based reform.” This general category refers to the idea of creating high standards for all students, measuring student performance against such standards, giving schools flexibility in how they design curriculum and instruction to enable students to meet the standards, and holding schools strictly accountable for attaining the standards. By requiring states to develop standards for student performance—the same challenging standards for all students—and to develop assessments linked to the standards, the Title I law in effect required states to adopt standards-based reform.
Moreover, the 1994 Title I statute also reflected the ferment in testing and assessment that has churned up the field since the mid-1980s. At that time, as state testing mandates increased and testing became more prevalent and more prominent in schools, critics became more vocal. Like the critics who focused specifically on Title I testing, including the Advisory Commission cited above, the testing critics charged that the growing use of testing with high stakes attached narrowed the curriculum and encouraged schools to emphasize low-level skills and knowledge at the expense of more challenging abilities. In place of such tests, reformers argued for so-called performance-based assessments, which ask students to demonstrate their knowledge and skill by performing a task, such as writing an essay, completing a science experiment, or explaining their solution to a mathematics problem. The reformers also argued for reporting assessment results based on how well a student performed against expectations for achievement, rather than a comparison with other students' performance.
The Title I law fit into this assessment reform movement by requiring tests that measure performance against standards, rather than those that compare student performance with that of other students. In addition, the law explicitly mandates that states use multiple, up-to-date measures of student performance, thus enshrining in law the demand for reform in assessment. In addition, the law also requires states to: