NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND (NCLB) may have had some flaws, but there was nothing wrong with its noble goal that every child be proficient in reading and math. Even though the country will fall short of reaching this benchmark by 2014, it’s important not to abandon the principle that all students — no matter their race, family income or background — must achieve. Unfortunately, abandonment of that principle may happen in Virginia, where new performance measures are causing concern that the state is marginalizing students by expecting less of those who are poor or a minority or need special education.
At issue are new achievement goals, called annual measurable objectives, set by the state under a waiver from NCLB accountability rules granted by the U.S. Education Department. Virginia is not alone in seeking federal relief in order to have flexibility in its approach to education. But its decision to calibrate performance targets by race, ethnicity and income has been denounced by advocates for minority and special-needs students.
The plan sets pass-rate goals for students in specific subgroups based on past test scores. There is a higher pass rate for Asian students than for white students and significantly lower pass rates for Hispanic, black or special-education students. For example, schools are expected in 2017 to have 78 percent of white students and 89 percent of Asian students pass the math standards of learning, compared to 57 percent for black students, 65 percent for Hispanic students and 49 percent for special-education students.
The new goals are said to be more realistic than what some saw as the pie-in-the-sky aim of all students being proficient by 2014. But it’s hard to see how differentiating between students — expecting more of some than others — can help close the achievement gap.
“Insulting and narrow-minded” was the characterization of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus in a recent letter to Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R). Clearly stung by the criticism, state education officials pushed back, arguing that all students, regardless of their demographic subgroup, must correctly answer the same number of items to earn a passing grade. Also, accreditation requirements for schools have expectations for achievement that do not vary depending on a school’s demographic characteristics.
But, as education consultant Andrew J. Rotherham pointed out recently on The Post’s Local Opinions page, that accreditation system, rather than helping to close the state’s stubborn achievement gap, has only masked it. How else to explain the fact that 96 percent of Virginia schools are fully accredited but only 18 percent of its eighth-grade black students, 18 percent of eighth-grade low-income students and 27 percent of eighth-grade Hispanic students are proficient in math on the nation’s benchmark assessment?
To be sure, there are commendable provisions in Virginia’s new education plan, including interventions for struggling schools and more rigorous standards. But codifying different expectations for different students is bad policy and practice. Federal education officials, who rejected Virginia’s original application for the waiver, would do well to send state officials back to the drawing board.