Back in July, the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) quietly released their new performance measures for academic achievement in public schools. As part of the No Child Left Behind Act, the US Department of Education granted Virginia, and several other states, “flexibility waivers” in exchange for more comprehensive state-developed plans designed to cater to the states’ specific needs. These established achievement goals, called annual measurable objectives (AMOs) focus on reducing the proficiency gaps between the lowest and highest performing schools.
This is all well and good, until one considers how the set performance targets are defined. The VDOE plans to determine the achievement rate in standardized testing by placing the students in specific subgroups. Subgroups based on race.
On the VDOE’s webpage, the official report sets standards for five student subgroups, including three “proficiency gap groups.” The report defines these three subgroups as students “who historically have had difficulty meeting the commonwealth’s achievement standards.”
Proficiency Gap Group one is made up of students with disabilities, English language learning students and economically disadvantaged students. Proficiency Gap Group two is comprised of African American students, and Proficiency Gap Group three is defined as Hispanic students. The final two groups are listed as “Asian Students” and “White Students”.
For a school to reach the VDOE’s “goals”, Asian and White students are expected to have a Reading pass rate of 92 percent and 90 percent, respectfully. Those in Proficiency Gap Groups one and two , however, only need to achieve a 76 percent pass rate. The difference in scores is even greater for the Math proficiency.
There are several things wrong with this method of defining success. The VDOE is assuming that being black or Hispanic automatically makes a student disadvantaged, paying no heed to socio-economic status, the surrounding area, the specific school or individual past test scores. They’re basically saying if you are black or Hispanic, we expect less of you. In what way is this not offensive?
This ‘aim-low’ approach is incredibly damaging to achievement potential. Schools that are in a primarily black/Hispanic neighborhood will have lower standards than their ‘whiter’ counterparts and still be accredited. This will not close the achievement gap at all. It’s like a child pushing their dirty laundry under the bed and proudly declaring “all clean!” As long as Proficiency Gap Groups two and three achieve between a 45 percent and 52 percent pass rate in Mathematics, they’re doing just fine, when of course, that’s toeing the line of a less than half success rate. How is that achievement?
On the opposite end, what about some schools in rural or understaffed school districts where race plays little part in the lack of achievement? Or regularly impoverished areas where families of all ethnicities struggle to get by? Assuming that black and Hispanic students make up the only academically underserved group is both insulting and widely irresponsible.
The new plan isn’t all bad, of course. Schools performing in the bottom percentages on standardized tests will be labeled “Priority Schools” and will receive an increased level of intervention, as well as more rigorous standards. But basing expectations off of a student’s race? That sets us back in Virginia history 50 years.
So what are the real instruments of success? Great teachers, substantial funding and community support, to name a few. And if goals must be set, how about we stop treating children like numbers and more like people deserving an education. We cannot expect less from a student because of their race. We should not expect anything less than their full potential which, with the right tools, could be limitless. Our goal shouldn’t be to have about half of black and Hispanic students pass the math SOL, it should be to reach a majority, if not close to 100 percent. Would that be difficult? Of course, but that does not mean we can give up on the nation’s children.