The principals knew they were on the hot seat even before Nancy S. Grasmick walked into the room.

Their students were flunking state exams in embarrassing numbers, their Baltimore schools were at risk of being taken over by state education officials, and their careers were on the line.

And then the boss--the state superintendent of schools--arrived. The world is changing, she said, and so must your schools if your students are to make it. Fire your bad teachers, she ordered--"You've got to bite that bullet."

The message was stern, but the delivery was all honey from this state executive, whose earnest voice and beseeching eyes softened the blow of her words and sent the message We're in this together. She left an hour later in a cloud of good vibes, collecting hugs, dishing out compliments.

It was a quintessential performance by Grasmick, whose political savvy and steel-magnolia charm have enabled her to engineer some of the most aggressive education reforms in the country despite skepticism and resistance.

In Maryland, her style and accomplishments have won her ardent fans among lawmakers and fellow educators. Some predict a bright political career for the 60-year-old former special education teacher, an appointed official who has never run for public office.

Nonetheless, the jury is still out on the effectiveness of her efforts. Though widely admired for their innovations, Maryland's school reforms under Grasmick so far have produced few extraordinary results. Some critics contend that the programs themselves are inconsistent--tests that assess schools, and others that assess students; initiatives to recruit more teachers but others to make it harder to enter the profession.

Grasmick herself acknowledges that her biggest challenges lie ahead. There is her lingering threat to take over ailing schools; after six years, some schools advocates are pushing her to take the plunge. And there are the tough new exams that high school seniors will soon have to pass in order to graduate.

Yet unlike many reformers, Grasmick expects to be around to see the fruits--or failures--of her work. Although most state school chiefs weather only two or three years of education politics, Grasmick has been on the job for eight. Last month, the State Board of Education extended her appointment through 2004.

It was a unanimous vote.

Grasmick is far more visible than the typical Cabinet official. With her blond bouffant hairstyle and tailored jewel-tone suits, she has the wattage of an anchorwoman or congresswoman. She eschews the education jargon of her colleagues, speaks at length without notes and delivers dazzling TV-ready sound bites. Often portrayed as a sympathetic character by local media, she was referred to by one Baltimore Sun columnist as "Our Lady of the Public Schools," without the slightest tinge of sarcasm.

It's a long way from a somewhat inauspicious start. When she was first appointed to the job in 1991, Grasmick was little-known outside the Baltimore education circles where she began her career. Many saw her as just another crony of then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer (D), for whom she had served in two lesser Cabinet posts--and for whom her husband, developer Lou Grasmick, had been a key supporter and fund-raiser.

Four years later, her testy relationships with the newly elected governor, Parris N. Glendening (D)--she graded his education policy a "C-minus" during the 1994 campaign--and with the state teachers' union had many predicting that Grasmick's days were numbered.

Yet she endured. And Grasmick emerged as the key figure in the "accountability" movement that is slowly, dramatically transforming public education in Maryland.

The reforms of the past decade have tried to shine a light on the failings of schools, and to push teachers and district officials to do better, by imposing a system of higher standards and strict benchmarks. Schools in poor neighborhoods--where teachers must work with children who are struggling with chaotic family lives, violence and little academic preparation--are cut no slack in the era of accountability. As Grasmick sees it, no children should be doomed to a lousy education simply because of the neighborhood they live in:

"Employers don't ask how dysfunctional your family life was. They ask one question: 'Do you have the skills to do the job?' "

In 1991 came the first round of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test, designed to measure how well third-, fifth- and eighth-graders analyze information and solve problems.

Grasmick took office four months later--just in time to absorb the outrage over the strange new exams. Critics were baffled by the MSPAP's format, which had children drawing charts, writing mini-essays and working in groups. Parents were angry that state officials would not let them see the tests or their children's scores (the test is meant to gauge schools' performance, not individual students').

Meanwhile, teachers feared they would be blamed for poor student performance. By the first official round of scorekeeping in 1993, only 31.7 percent of students were passing the test.

In other states, such problems have killed more than one fledgling school reform program. Yet Grasmick stood by the MSPAP, making only a few small concessions such as enlisting more help from teachers in formulating questions.

Slowly, the tests have won quiet acceptance, even enthusiasm, from many principals and teachers who have responded by changing the way they educate children--offering more hands-on experiments, ordering up more writing practice.

Grasmick and the state board used the evidence of lagging MSPAP scores to acquire another accountability weapon: the power to seize control of schools that fail to improve their low scores. Nearly 100 schools, including one in Anne Arundel County and 12 in Prince George's County, have been notified they are at risk of takeover.

In the meantime, Grasmick pushed the state board to improve classroom instruction--requiring that teachers receive a string of satisfactory evaluations in order to renew their licenses and setting some of the highest minimum passing scores in the country for the national certifying exam for teachers.

On the horizon are new multi-subject graduation exams, which every senior starting with the class of 2005 will have to pass to receive a diploma. Many say they pose the greatest challenge of Grasmick's superintendency.

"Unless they lower the standards, a slew of kids are going to fail that test," warns Matthew Joseph, director of public policy for Advocates for Children and Youth. "It will be the first time anyone is facing the consequences."

Grasmick, though, is seeking funding for another program that she says will help schools prepare students for the new tests. She wants $22 million a year to monitor the progress of students, starting in elementary school, and mandatory summer school or after-school tutoring for those who are falling behind.

"It's the absolutely critical piece," she says, to ensure that students make it to graduation with the skills they need to hold jobs in an information-driven marketplace.

Whether she can win this much funding from Glendening and the General Assembly remains to be seen. But admirers note that Grasmick has already pulled off more than a few political miracles.

In 1997, she was credited with solving a dispute over the struggling Prince George's County school system's request for extra state funding by developing a formula to distribute an extra $45 million a year to all school districts, based on their number of poor and foreign-language-speaking students.

This year, she overcame opposition from Glendening and the state teachers' union to win legislative approval of her solution to the teacher shortage: a bill that promises signing bonuses and mentoring programs for new instructors.

"The respect that she has from the General Assembly is unprecedented," says Eric B. Schwartz, lobbyist for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education. "She has a lot of clout."

Part of Grasmick's power comes with the job, which is uniquely buffered from the political forces that batter most other state school chiefs. She is appointed by a long-serving appointed state board, and the General Assembly has no say over her tenure. Yet Grasmick has formed helpful alliances with such powerful lawmakers as Del. Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore) who share her views on education reform.

Yet although supporters applaud Grasmick's reforms, most acknowledge that the results are uneven.

Over the past decade, Maryland schools have made little improvement on SAT scores while greatly reducing the number of dropouts. Maryland's graduation rate has increased significantly and is now the highest in the country, according to census figures.

Still, although the state has made great gains on its own MSPAP since 1993--44.1 percent of students passed the test last year--schools still are far short of the goal of a 70 percent passing rate by the end of the decade.

And Maryland's performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exams has remained average, while other states earning national recognition for education reform have shot up.

Some critics grouse that Maryland has not taken the risks that other states have with truly experimental models of reform, such as school choice, charter schools, year-round classes or a sweeping overhaul of education funding.

Others say Grasmick's vaunted political skills have enabled her to excise teachers' voices from reform efforts. Earlier this year, when she unveiled her teachers' incentive bill, she did so without consulting the Maryland State Teachers Association.

"Nancy takes the position that she is the only protector of children," said Michael Butera, MSTA's former executive director, who now works for the Wisconsin Education Association Council. "Quite frankly, MSTA and teachers resent that."

Grasmick allows: "It may be legitimate to say they don't think I work with them enough. . . . It's the definition of what's 'enough.' "

But her relationship with the governor seems to have settled. Glendening says he is proud of the recognition that Maryland is receiving nationally for its education initiatives, though he thinks there may be too many tests.

Still, he says, "I think we are on the right track."

Although Grasmick's appointment extends until 2004, she refuses to work under contract--and thus inspires endless speculation about her future. Once discussed as a potential gubernatorial candidate, Grasmick is seen by others as the next U.S. Secretary of Education or as a member of Congress.

She tacitly encourages this kind of talk by declining to discuss her long-term plans, saying she's unwilling to rule anything out.

At the same time, she talks excitedly about staying to shepherd the high school tests to a successful start. And her longevity--she is the third-longest-serving state school chief in the country--is a special point of pride.

"If you're in a political situation, you have to do things that make a splash, as opposed to what's sound over time," she says. "I have the ability to take that time."

Tomorrow: In Virginia, Board of Education President Kirk T. Schroder is trying to make the state's school-standards program less punitive without lowering the bar.

Education Under Grasmick

Maryland Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick has engineered a series of reforms to improve student performance and make schools more accountable. Critics, however, maintain that her initiatives have produced few tangible results. During Grasmick's tenure, Maryland has made gains on its unique test of student skills, but many schools are still performing below expectations. Other indicators of school quality under Grasmick's leadership:

MSPAP (Maryland School Performance Assessment Program)

From 1993 to 1998, the percentage of students in third, fifth and eighth grades passing the Maryland School Performance and Assessment Program exam rose from 31.7 percent to 44.1 percent. That still is far below the state's goal of having 70 percent pass by 2000.

SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test)

The 1998-99 state average is 507 verbal, 507 math, compared with the national average of 505 verbal, 511 math. Maryland's average was largely the same as a decade ago: 510 verbal, 505 math.

Graduation Rates

Percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds with high school credentials:

1990: 87%

1996: 95%

SOURCES: Maryland Department of Education, U.S. Census Bureau