Should Schools Set Different Goals for Students of Different Races?

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A little-discussed facet of Obama's education policy has allowed some states to set lower achievement targets for minority students than for whites.

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Elementary school students in Virginia wait in line to shake hands with Mitt Romney during the presidential campaign. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

It would be tough to find a slope that's potentially more slippery than this one: public schools setting different achievement expectations for students based on their race and ethnicity.

But that's exactly what's happening in dozens of states that have received waivers from the U.S. Department of Education, allowing them to replace the more onerous provisions of No Child Left Behind with more flexible accountability measures. NCLB's core premise was that all students - regardless of ethnicity, socioeconomic, or special-education status - would have to be proficient in reading, writing, and math by the 2013-14 academic year. States were given leeway in setting their definitions of proficiency, and in deciding how best to move students toward the final goal.

But with the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act more than seven years overdue (and a congressional stalemate unlikely to be resolved anytime soon), U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan began authorizing waivers. In exchange, states agreed to adopt specific reform measures that were in line with President Obama's education reform agenda, and to establish accountability measures for charting student progress.

So far 34 states and the District of Columbia have been granted NCLB waivers, and were permitted to reset the achievement bar for academic performance. And now it gets tricky: While all individual students are ostensibly still expected to reach proficiency in core subjects, some states have adjusted their "annual measurable objectives" for schools so that the percentage of students that must show progress on standardized tests varies by race and ethnic group. In Florida, for example, 90 percent of Asian students, 88 percent of whites, 81 percent of Hispanics and 74 percent of blacks will be expected to demonstrate proficiency on the state's reading assessments by 2018. A similar sliding scale has been set for mathematics.

Supporters of such measures contend this approach is the only realistic path to wide-scale school improvement. Critics argue that lower expectations for minority students will ultimately translate into lower outcomes.

Drawing particularly fierce opposition was Virginia's initially proposed new policy, which would have required just 57 percent of black students to be proficient in math by 2017. An early critic was Andy Rotherham of Bellwether Education Partners, a national nonprofit in Washington, D.C. that focuses on improving opportunities for low-income students. Writing in the Washington Post, Rotherham argued that the "debilitating message" the Dogwood State was sending to students, parents, and educators was "together but unequal." (The U.S. Department of Education has since ruled that Virginia's policy went too far and worked with the state to renegotiate a more ambitious plan.)

Here's what we do know: There is a stubborn achievement gap for Hispanic students and black students nationwide. In turn, that's translated into an opportunity gap. Minority students are not just scoring lower than their white peers on high-stakes tests; they are also getting less access to the most qualified teachers, the best schools, and the most expansive academic opportunities.

So, how did addressing those gaps translate into resetting the achievement bar by student ethnicity? When Congress was still actively debating the ESEA reauthorization back in 2010, the Education Trust, an advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., proposed a comprehensive set of recommendations. Those included a requirement that states cut in half the gap between where each group of students start and 100 percent proficiency within six years, and to aim to reduce their student achievement gaps by 50 percent. While the reauthorization stalled, the U.S. Department of Education decided to include "cut the gap in half" as one of the options states could choose to satisfy the accountability requirement of the waiver application process.

Some states are hewing closely to the Ed Trust's original blueprint. Others have appropriated the name but are not operating within the initiative's suggested framework. (More on that problem in a just a moment.)

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, speaking at Ed Trust's recent national conference in Washington, D.C., praised the organization for taking the lead in developing the "cut the gap in half" approach, calling it "very ambitious" but "also achievable."

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Emily Richmond is the public editor for the National Education Writers Association. She was previously the education reporter for the Las Vegas Sun.

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