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As part of Virginia's waiver to opt out of mandates set out in the No Child Left Behind law, the state has created a controversial new set of education goals that are higher for white and Asian kids than for blacks, Latinos and students with disabilities.
Virginia Democratic state Sen. Donald McEachin first read about the state's new performance goals for schoolchildren in a newspaper editorial.
"And I was shocked to find that the state board of education [was] putting in place permanent disparities between different subgroups — Asians at the top, African-Americans at the bottom," says McEachin.
Rest assured, all of us hold all students to the same academic standards, but when it comes to measuring progress, we have to consider that students start at different points.Patricia Wright, Virginia superintendent of public instruction
Here's what the Virginia state board of education actually did. It looked at students' test scores in reading and math and then proposed new passing rates. In math it set an acceptable passing rate at 82 percent for Asian students, 68 percent for whites, 52 percent for Latinos, 45 percent for blacks and 33 percent for kids with disabilities.
Alarmed by these numbers, McEachin and members of the Legislature's black caucus denounced the new policy as a "backwards-looking scheme."
"If we don't demand the best of our children, we won't receive the best," says McEachin.
At a meeting of the state board of education in late September, Patricia Wright, Virginia's superintendent of public instruction, defended the new policy.
"Rest assured, all of us hold all students to the same academic standards, but when it comes to measuring progress, we have to consider that students start at different points," Wright said.
In a phone interview with NPR, Wright explained that Virginia's expectation is that all students, regardless of race or ethnicity, will correctly answer the same number of questions to pass the state tests.
But the reality is that black and Latino children generally don't do as well as white and Asian children, and that gap, says Wright, is what the new policy is meant to address by setting more modest goals for struggling minority children and giving them more time to catch up.
"The concept here is that if indeed within six years we can close the achievement gap between the lowest- and highest-performing schools — at least cut it in half — that would be acceptable progress," says Wright.
At least one board member responded indignantly to accusations that the new policy harkens back to the era of segregation and Jim Crow. "We're not trying to go back to Jim Crow. What does that make us, Uncle Toms?" said Winsome Sears, one of three black board members at a meeting last month.
"So why do we have these different subgroups? Because we're starting with black children where they are. We can't start them at the 82 percentile because they're not there. The Asian students are there. And so the real question is why aren't black students starting at the 82 percentile? Why? Why are they not there?" Sears said.
That's the problem the board wants to solve, Sears said. Virginia devised the new policy after receiving a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education. Thirty-three states have received such waivers freeing them from what they call the unrealistic goal of the No Child Left Behind law — that all children perform at grade level by 2014.
But what Virginia has really done, critics argue, is institutionalize lower expectations for minority and disabled kids.
Virginia has done something very, very wrong.Amy Wilkins of Education Trust
"Virginia has done something very, very wrong," says Amy Wilkins, with the Education Trust, a research group that advocates for closing the achievement gap.
"What Virginia said is, black kids in our state should achieve not at grade level but at the highest level that black kids have achieved in the past. That's not a forward-looking goal," Wilkins says. "That is not a goal that's going to ensure that black kids catch up with white kids or Latinos catch up with white kids or poor kids catch up with rich kids."
Wright disagrees but would not elaborate.
"Well, I really can't comment on Ed Trust's statement," says Wright.
In at least one other state — Florida — the NAACP has raised its concerns about new passing rates and performance goals for black and Latino students, although they don't appear to be as low as Virginia's.
Meanwhile, members of the Virginia Legislature's black caucus say they will consider filing a grievance with the U.S. Education Department before the policy is fully adopted.