“We need to have as high expectations for any child in Ward 2 as Ward 7, for any child in Ward 3 as Ward 8. There should be no difference,” she said. “The playing field should be level, and if the playing field is not level, then we should bring more resources into areas of greatest need.”
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.
The Obama administration has awarded waivers from key provisions of No Child Left Behind, allowing states to adopt different achievement goals for different groups of students so long as the lowest performers are required to make the fastest gains.
“We are expecting dramatic improvements, but trying to be realistic about what’s achievable within a relatively short time frame,” Daren Briscoe, a U.S. Education Department spokesman, wrote in an e-mail.
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.
The District’s goals were set by the Office of the State Superintendent, which oversees both the traditional school system and charter schools.
Citywide, 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.
At Anacostia High, the goal is to lift reading proficiency from
14 percent in 2011 to 57 percent in 2017 — a target that will require growth of 7 percentage points a year. That’s much more growth than is required at School Without Walls, which is starting at
99.1 percent proficiency.
D.C. public school officials rejected the notion that the new targets will translate into relaxed ambitions for the neediest kids, describing them as minimum expectations, not ultimate goals.
“I don’t by any stretch of the imagination think that these targets mean that anybody in the District [is] lowering their expectations for our kids,” said Cate Swinburn, the school system’s chief of data and accountability. “In no way does DCPS hold our students to different expectations based on their skin color or language ability or special learning needs.”
Ultimately, whether the District’s goals — or the country’s goals — are ambitious enough to close achievement gaps is a matter of judgment, said Andrew J. Rotherham, a past member of the Virginia Board of Education who writes and consults on education issues. It’s a matter of what the public is willing to accept.
“Look, our schools are political creations,” Rotherham said. “You’ve got to start from there. Decisions about them are politically derived.”
Some parents say they’re more concerned about whether city leaders have a workable plan and political will to reach the new targets — especially in the city’s less affluent neighborhoods — than they are about the targets themselves.
“I just want to know, if I put on my parent hat: What are you doing to make sure that my child is going to be receiving the same level of support or resources that the children at the higher-achieving school is going to get?” said Iris Toyer, a longtime Ward 8 education activist and the mother of four D.C. schools alumni. “What are the adults willing to do to put everybody on even footing?”