Every public school in the United States has aimed for the same goal over the past decade: that all students be proficient in math and reading by 2014.
But that noble ambition, educators and experts almost universally agree, was never realistic. Now, in the District and many states, goals over the next five years tend to be lower for black, Hispanic and poor children than they are for white and Asian students, and in the District, they tend to be higher at schools in affluent areas than in poor neighborhoods. It’s a policy shift that strikes some parents as a form of prejudice.
Officials say the new targets account for differences in current performance and demand the fastest progress from students who are furthest behind. The goals vary across much of the country by race, family income and disability, and in Washington, they also vary by school.
At Anacostia High, which draws almost exclusively African Americans from one of the District’s most impoverished areas, officials aim to quadruple the proportion of students who are proficient in reading by 2017, but that would still mean that fewer than six out of 10 pass standardized reading tests. Across town at the School Without Walls in Northwest Washington, a diverse and high-performing magnet that enrolls students from across the city, the aim is higher: 99.6 percent.
Meanwhile, at Wilson Senior High, 67 percent of black students—and 88 percent of Asians and 95 percent of whites—are expected to pass standardized math tests five years from now.
Setting different aspirations for different groups of children represents a sea change in national education policy, which for years has prescribed blanket goals for all students. Some education experts see the new approach as a way to speed achievement for black, Latino and low-income students, but some parents can’t help but feel that less is being expected of their children.
City and federal education officials say they’re not retreating from the conviction that all children can learn. Instead, they say, they’re trying to bring about real change by setting attainable goals that reflect an unavoidable truth: Some schools, and some students, lag far behind others.
Under the new approach, low performers will be required to make larger gains each year than higher-achieving students so that the gap between student groups is cut in half by 2017.
The policy shift follows intensifying criticism that No Child Left Behind—the federal education law that requires 100 percent proficiency by 2014—unfairly punishes schools for failing to meet pie-in-the-sky achievement targets.
Besides the District, 27 of the 33 states that won waivers—including Maryland and Virginia—have set different targets for different groups of students.
In Maryland, state officials aim for black students statewide to progress from 76 to 88 percent reading proficiency by 2017. White students’ reading proficiency should grow from 92 to 96 percent over the same period, according to Maryland targets.
Virginia officials originally put forth goals that would have narrowed racial achievement gaps only slightly. That prompted complaints from civil rights groups, and in August, state and federal officials agreed to make revisions. The state education board will set new targets in late September, targets that are expected to vary by student group.
Citywide [in D.C.], the proportion of white students who pass standardized tests in reading will have to grow from 88 to 94 percent by 2017, or about 1 percentage point each year. Pass rates for black children, meanwhile, must grow five times faster—from 41 to 71 percent.