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.
“It’s disgraceful,” said Alicia Rucker, a Ward 7 resident and single mother of six, one of whom graduated from Georgetown University and five of whom are still living at home and enrolled in D.C. public schools. “It’s ridiculous to even believe that if you expect less from someone, you’re going to get more.”
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.
“What we have to be very honest about is that schools, and groups of students within schools, are starting at different places right now,” said Daria Hall of the Education Trust, an influential nonprofit group that advocates for lifting the achievement of underprivileged children and endorses the new approach.
“What we need is to have a system that starts where they are right now and moves them all forward,” Hall said, “and moves those who are furthest behind further, faster.”