Every public school in the United States has aimed for the same goal over the past decade: that all students be proficient in math and reading by 2014.

But that noble ambition, educators and experts almost universally agree, was never realistic. Now, in the District and many states, goals over the next five years tend to be lower for black, Hispanic and poor children than they are for white and Asian students, and in the District, they tend to be higher at schools in affluent areas than in poor neighborhoods. It’s a policy shift that strikes some parents as a form of prejudice.

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.”

But for Rucker, the Ward 7 mother, it’s impossible not to see targets that differ by race and income as a form of prejudice — what George W. Bush famously called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Adjusting expectations to make them more realistic may help mask profound needs in some of the city’s least-privileged communities, she said.

“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?”