Virginia to revise student achievement goals

Virginia intends to revise its new goals for student achievement in public schools, after state and federal officials agreed that those goals did not do enough to narrow the gap between students with the worst and best scores on annual state exams.

But the federal government continues to support perhaps the most controversial feature of the state plan, which calls for different achievement goals for students according to race, family income and disability.

Under the plan, Asian students are expected to achieve a higher pass rate on state exams than white students, while the state sets lower goals for Hispanic, black and special-education students.

That kind of sorting — different goals for different groups of students — has been attacked in recent days by some civil rights leaders in the state.

“My biggest concern is setting lower expectations for minorities than other cultures,” said Carmen Taylor, vice president of the state chapter of the NAACP, which sent a letter to Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R). “If you set low expectations for children, you devalue them and demoralize them to themselves.”

But David M. Foster, president of the Virginia Board of Education, said the varying goals do not mean that the state has lower expectations for black, Hispanic or disabled students.

“I can appreciate the concern — the achievement gap has been a challenge from Arlington to Richmond and all over the country,” he said. “Our ultimate goal is to eliminate the achievement gap and ensure proficiency in every student subgroup.”

The Obama administration has allowed states to set different goals for different groups of students, as long as the low-performing students are required to make greater rates of progress, so that the gap between struggling students and high-achieving students is cut in half over six years.

The District and 27 of the 33 states that have received waivers from the Obama administration under No Child Left Behind have also set new goals that call for different levels of achievement for different groups of students.

In Maryland, for example, state officials say they want Asian students to progress from 94.5 percent proficient in math in 2011 to 97 percent by 2017. During the same period, the state wants black students to improve from 68 percent to 84 percent. The black students are expected to reach a lower endpoint but they would have to improve at a faster rate.

The idea has been endorsed by the Education Trust, an advocacy organization dedicated to eliminating the achievement gap between poor and privileged children.

Virginia devised its achievement goals as a condition of getting a federal waiver from provisions of No Child Left Behind, the main federal education law. Under those goals, 78 percent of white students and 89 percent of Asian students are expected pass state math tests in 2017, while 57 percent of black students, 65 percent of Hispanic students and 49 percent of special-education students are expected to pass.

The Obama administration has awarded waivers in order to free states and the District from punitive aspects of the federal law, which was supposed to be rewritten by Congress four years ago and is increasingly seen as outdated and unworkable.

Under No Child Left Behind, 100 percent of public school students were supposed to be proficient in English and math by 2014 — a goal that most education officials dismiss as unrealistic.

“If you just set an arbitrary target without regard for what’s achievable and where they’re starting from, you’re just shooting in the dark,” Foster said. “That was the whole problem with No Child Left Behind. It made no sense to say that by an arbitrary year . . . every child everywhere in this vast country would pass every math and reading test. We made a joke of the process that way.”

The Obama administration said states could win a waiver if they developed new standards that were aggressive yet attainable.

When Virginia applied for its waiver, the state did not have the results from tougher standardized tests that were administered in the 2011-12 school year. Once those scores were collected in early summer, Virginia officials realized that some groups of students — African Americans, for example — had performed worse than on tests administered during the prior school year. That meant the goals set under Virginia’s waiver plan were not aggressive enough to boost the scores of low performers and cut the achievement gap in half over six years.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Education Department sent a letter to Patricia Wright, Virginia’s superintendent for public instruction, confirming that the state would set new, more aggressive goals.

The state board of education will take up the matter Sept. 27, but Foster said he expects the board to approve the new plan.

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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