It took a group of high school students to teach me the difference between high standards and high expectations.

A couple of months ago, I took a trip to Mt. Juliet High School in Wilson County to document the policies and practices their school had put in place that could explain the school’s drastic improvement in student achievement. I’d spent the afternoon hearing from teachers and administrators about the various ways the school has raised its standards for students: by placing students in advanced courses based on their academic performance (instead of letting students self-select into easier courses), hiring a graduation coach to work with students who are in danger of not graduating based on their middle school performance, and offering a robust selection of AP and CTE courses, among other activities.

But when I asked the students about what academic expectations their school has of them, they told me that they are expected to be leaders in the classroom, role models for younger peers, and thought partners in their education. One student emphasized that these expectations ingrain students with an intrinsic motivation to do their best and take pride in their work. A quality they said is lacking in their peers from other schools and which explains why Mt. Juliet has been able to make strong gains in student achievement.

Although I was asking these students questions as part of our SCORE Prize site visit process to determine the extent to which their school had embraced high academic standards for its students, by interchanging “standards” and “expectations,” these students illuminated a critical factor that must be present in education reform.

Of the “gaps” that Tennessee now contends with in education, including the skills gaps and achievement gaps between racial minorities and socioeconomically disadvantaged students and their white and wealthy peers, the aspirations gap—the difference between what our students hope for their futures and what we have prepared them to succeed in—is among the most troubling. While 82 percent of Tennessee’s 2011 graduating class aspires to attain at least a 2-year degree, only 15 percent of these students are deemed college-ready. In a state where seven of the 10 fastest growing jobs will require some education after high school, state and local leaders have stepped in to increase standards to ensure our students have the tools they need to succeed in the global economy.

But those Mt. Juliet students made me realize that we often confuse standards (the things students must master to be prepared for next steps) with expectations (a belief system that permeates an entire school) and that in order to create the best environment for students to thrive, both must be high.

For example, because Fairview Elementary in Anderson County expects their students to keep their work organized and pass classes when they are in 4th and 5th grades, they are prepared for the rigors of middle school. Because Power Center Academy in Memphis provides their students with the opportunity to operate a Youth Bank through a partnership the school has with SunTrust, their scholars are prepared for the financial responsibilities of adulthood. And because Maryville High School in Maryville exposes its seniors to a course in which they conduct a research project of their own design while being held accountable for interim benchmarks that they are required to set themselves, they are more than prepared for the structure of college. In each of these cases, the state’s new standards were a necessary benchmark that students and teachers were expected to exceed.

Throughout our visits to SCORE Prize finalists, we learned that in order to help students meet new benchmarks, you must engage them in a way that pushes them to be role models, implores them to accept the responsibilities of being a young adult, and prepares them to be active and productive citizens in their communities. High standards are just the starting point.