Virginia’s Race-Based Passing Standards Raising Eyebrows

Although all students must obtain passing grades to meet state standards, schools must ensure that a percentage of students from each racial group pass exams.

Virginia isn’t the only state introducing new student achievement standards this year, but the clause that has raised eyebrows in some legislative offices are the specific achievement objectives for some of Virginia’s racial and ethnic groups. In a letter to the state governor Bob McDonnell, members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus called them “insulting and narrow minded,” according to the Daily Press.

The issue seems to be with the different goals for each race when it comes to how many students must pass each of the state’s Standards of Learning exams. The new set of standards that go into effect this year are meant to take the place of benchmarks set by the No Child Left Behind Act, which required universal grade-level literacy from all students and which the state educational establishment felt it would be unlikely to meet. When the Obama administration gave states the option to apply for a waiver from the NCLB requirements, Virginia took advantage and received approval for alternative student achievement benchmarks that became the controversial Standards of Learning benchmarks.

When the difference in racial goals was first made public, and the chairwoman of the Black Caucus, State Senator Maimie Locke, first voiced her concerns, Virginia Secretary of Education Laura Fornash replied with a three-page letter explaining her department’s justification for the standards. She also offered other members of the Black Caucus an opportunity to be personally briefed in the changes required by the NCLB waiver.

The new standards still require every student, regardless of background, to correctly answer the same number of questions to pass SOL tests.

For example, every student who takes the third-grade math exam must answer correctly 23 of 35 questions to pass, no matter their race or background.

That includes students who are white, black, Asian, Hispanic, disabled, economically-disadvantaged or have limited English skills. The state has to report how those groups do to the federal government, and to work on helping any students who lag behind.

The state did set new pass rates, or goals for how many students in each group pass each exam.

Different racial goals come in with the required pass rates. Although students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds must answer the same number of questions correctly to pass, in order for a school to meet the new state standards, 45% of its African-American students must obtain passing grades, while the pass rate for Asian-American and Asian students must be over 80%. The percentages were drawing from the racial and ethnic data from the 2011-12 SOL exams collected and analyzed by the state’s education department.

To create new objectives, the state analyzed how students in every group did on math tests in 2011-2012 and on reading tests in 2010-2011.

Groups that did better have higher goals and groups that did poorly have lower goals. The pass rates will increase every year for all groups, with a goal of cutting the achievement gap between lower- and higher-performing groups in half within six years, according to the state.

Schools at the lowest end will get extra help and intervention from the state.

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