The Black Alliance for Educational Options is deeply troubled by the recent decision of the Virginia Department of Education to set different goals for performance on the state test based solely on students’ race and ethnicity.
Specifically, Virginia has articulated its race-based expectations for public school students as follows: 90 percent of white students and 92 percent of Asian students are expected to pass the state’s reading test at each school, compared to 59 percent of black students. The state expects 82 percent of Asians to pass the state math test, but only 45 percent of blacks to make the grade.
The state has defended the new system as a way to close the achievement gap in Virginia, saying the performance benchmarks are based on subgroups’ performance on past state tests and that differentiating expectations will facilitate a more transparent and realistic measure of progress.
It is certainly true that across the nation, an achievement gap persists along racial lines and that the average performance of whites and Asians has been higher than the average performance of students of color. By making race the sole predictor of future performance, however, Virginia is neglecting the most significant factor in a student’s likelihood to succeed: family income. In all racial subgroups, affluent students perform substantially better than their peers from low-income families, and across the color spectrum, children whose parents went to college are much more likely to pursue higher education than first-generation college aspirants.
Try as Virginia might, the data defy crude simplification. Within the black community, as in all communities of color, is a range of students with diverse needs and varying levels of preparedness. Lowering expectations for all our children, based on the average performance of their racial subgroup not only dismisses this diversity, it sends a message all too reminiscent of the days of Jim Crow.
The Education Trust has reported powerfully on the impact of low expectations on low-income students of color. Students in poor schools receive A grades for work that would earn Cs in affluent schools. Blacks are underrepresented in gifted and talented programs and overrepresented among retained students; while blacks comprise 16 percent of the overall student population in grades 6-8, 42 percent of all students retained are black. Even black students with high math performance in fifth grade are unlikely to be placed in algebra in eighth grade; and students of color are far less likely than their white and Asian peers to attend high schools with rigorous courses offered like physics and calculus. Why? Low expectations have consequences.
While BAEO strongly urges the state to rethink its dangerously oversimplified approach, we acknowledge the problems within the black community that have contributed to our students’ relatively low average performance. Black educators, parents and grandparents have not been exempt from the fallout of de facto segregation and the socioeconomic challenges facing our community. In some cases we have expected and demanded too little of ourselves, assuming too passive a role in determining our own destiny.
Virginia’s action should serve as a rallying cry for the black community, a stark reminder that public education is the newest front of the Civil Rights movement, and the battle continues. It is not enough that we oppose the discriminatory benchmarks of the new system. We must hold the state accountable for the abysmal performance of the schools serving our children.
Public education was designed to serve as the great equalizer — to give all children access to the American Dream regardless of race, family income or even family support. In Virginia, the system is failing. After years of “reform,” more than half of black students still lack proficiency in math. By 2016, the state aspires to boost that figure to 60 percent. The state expects us to wait four more years, and if the target is met, four out of 10 black students will still lack the mathematical skills they need to succeed. That’s the greatest outrage of all.
BAEO expects more as do most black families. Virginia should too.
Campbell is president of The Black Alliance for Educational Options
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