In Virginia, Reopening the Gap

By Ross Wiener
Monday, June 6, 2005

Closing the academic achievement gap is finally among the highest priorities of our nation's schools. This focus is entirely right: The divide between education "haves" and "have-nots" has always been wide. But in the 1990s, just as education was becoming more important to success in life, the divide grew even wider. With the passage of the No Child Left Behind legislation (NCLB) in 2001, Congress acted decisively to reverse this trend and to demand that public education close the gap once and for all. The law calls on the states to take responsibility for educating all children, by holding schools accountable for success with all -- not just some -- groups of students.

NCLB's accountability provisions are sparking progress. Many states, including Virginia, are narrowing previously stubborn gaps and boosting overall achievement. While the law certainly isn't perfect, these early results are too encouraging to allow the clock to be turned back on NCLB's accountability provisions. But a proposal from Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) would do just that. Allen's bill would allow states simply to walk away from their responsibility to educate African American, Latino and low-income students.

Before NCLB, schools hid their achievement gaps behind their overall scores. Take Fairfax County, for instance -- one of the most affluent and highly regarded school districts in the nation. It turns out that Fairfax public schools are great for some but not others. While 91 percent of Fairfax's white students demonstrate proficiency in English, only 66 percent of its African American students reached this level of achievement last year.

As The Post noted in an editorial last November, African American students across Virginia demonstrate higher levels of learning than similar students in Fairfax. Indeed, African American students in the Richmond, Henrico County and Hampton school districts -- all of which are less wealthy and educate a higher percentage of African American students -- have been taught to higher levels in English, science and mathematics than African American students in Fairfax.

To its credit, Virginia was ahead of most states in developing a standards-based accountability system, and it had seen some gains before NCLB. But Virginia's pre-NCLB accountability system -- which Allen touts as the basis for his bill -- hid the Fairfax gaps and allowed its schools to neglect the education of poor and minority students. Before NCLB, Virginia evaluated schools only on overall pass rates, not on how well different groups of students were educated. That means that Fairfax would never have been asked or expected to close the gap between its African American and white students. Allen's proposal would return us to a system that allows public schools to ignore poor and minority children.

Under Allen's proposal, states would decide how many students they expected to be educated to state standards, with no expectation that all or even most students would be taught to proficiency. The bill pays lip service to closing the gap but sets no goals or quantifiable benchmarks and offers no guarantee that students who have historically suffered discrimination will count as they do under NCLB. The bill is a dramatic retreat from the cause of equity and from the students who most need the su pport of federal law.

Fortunately, Congress has held firm in its support for greater educational equity. The Democrats and Republicans who worked together to give the nation a new tool for equity in public education have so far rebuffed every attempt to weaken the law. The Allen bill should likewise be rejected as a retreat from the hard and necessary work of educating all children to high standards.

The writer is policy director of the Education Trust.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company