G.L.Piggy [at] gmail.com
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In Florida this month, the state board of education approved one of the most controversial sets of educational achievement goals the country has seen in quite some time.
Except, many states have explicitly stated expectations gaps for students of different races. The New York Times noted that 34 states have different stated goals for different demographics. Only eight states have uniform goals for all kids regardless of race or background. So Jefferson misunderstands the issue but he continues anyway:
In an effort to close the racial achievement gap that plagues much of America, the board decided to use that gap to set parameters for what it expects children of different races to achieve over the next six years. Breaking from George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind,” which demanded uniform achievement goals for all students in an effort to avoid “soft bigotry,” Florida is now going to have racially stratified educational targets in math and reading. In other words, black children performing more poorly than white children won’t just be tolerated, it will be the rule. [ed: that's not a rule by any stretch of the word; that's an expectation, and a reasonable if not unfortunate one.] For something deemed “soft bigotry,” this sure seems pretty hard.
President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, which is a spinoff of NCLB, has also caused states to set goal gaps for different racial cohorts. For example, in their applications for RTTT’s $4 billion cash-prize allotment, New York and New Jersey both set disparate goals for the different races. And that’s just two of the states whose RTTT applications I scoured through.
Given the existence of the gap and the unrealistic goals of No Child Left Behind, states had to seek relief from these onerous goals. The various states realized the limitations of their students’ ability and the ability of the system to bring them up to par. States essentially told the federal government, “hey, look, it’s impossible to turn water into wine here; we need more time.” The federal government agreed and basically asked the states to lay out a plan. They set up a contest between the states to see who could promise the most bang for the buck. The Feds asked the states to show their work, and since NCLB and RTTT is largely about closing achievement gaps, the states showed their timeline for closing gaps which do actually exist in the real world.
On the other hand, when Florida says outright that inequities have made it so black students as a whole are hobbled and can’t achieve the way their white counterparts can, black leaders instinctually reel at what sounds like the wisdom of The Bell Curve. So where does the goodness of affirmative action end and the ugliness of Florida’s new racially divided policy begin? At what point does accepting the realities of what centuries of discrimination has done to the black community turn into new discrimination based on insultingly lowered expectations?
Executive summary: “We understand that achievement gaps do exist and that they exist for a multitude of reasons including a history of discrimination and the economic poverty of blacks in America. But we can never explicitly acknowledge this gap using numbers and percentages. This is dehumanizing for some reason that we can’t really explain. We want to fix the problem, but we do not want to implement the actuary methods to ensure that the problem is fixed.”
Jefferson’s phrase “insultingly lowered expectations” is curious. It implies that black students should easily meet the new expectations that the states have laid out for them. But do we really expect black student achievement to jump as dramatically as educators hope? Only 38% of Florida’s black students read at grade level, and only 40% score at their grade level in math. The state wants to get both numbers up to 74% proficiency by 2018. One hundred percent by 2023. Sixty-nine percent of whites are at grade level reading; 68% at grade level math. The goals are 88% and 86% respectively. If any group of students don’t end up meeting the goal set for several years down the road, then no set of expectations were “insultingly” low. They could very well end up being laughably high. One suspects that state level educators at all states are overly ambitious in their extrapolations for historically low-achieving student groups. We’ve now had a decade of NCLB and manical focus on standardized tests and gap closure. Minority students have gained in some regards (here is a presentation on Florida state level statistics for grade level proficiency – “grade level” is a score of 3 on the state’s FCAT 2.0 test).
Just one example of the trend. Each year from 2001 to 2011, the percentage of Florida’s black students scoring the lowest level on the grade level exams has declined quite substantially. But it seems to be nearing a plateau and not all that close to Florida’s white student performance. The year over year changes are 6, 4, 6, 3, 3, 2, 1, 2, 1, 0. Minority and poor students probably did see vast improvements – high returns to scale – in the first half decade of NCLB and standardized testing regimens, but those returns seem to be dissipating. Hopefully the states are extrapolating properly; we’d hate to fall short of our expectations.