Alabama’s Race-Based Benchmarks Draw Controversy

Alabama is just one of many states rolling out a new academic accountability system in the next couple of years. However, it will be one of the few that takes into account not just student performance or teacher effectiveness, but students' race, family income, disabilities and even their primary household language when creating academic benchmarks for kids.

According to Jamon Smith of Tuscaloosa News, Plan 2020 will replace the accountability standards specified in the No Child Left Behind Act. Plan 2020's aims are typical of similar plans adopted around the country – increased graduation rates, college- and career-readiness, closing student achievement gaps – but Alabama's method to pursue those goals will raise debate among education experts and civil rights advocates alike.

It sets a different standard for students in each of several subgroups — American Indian, Asian/Pacific Islander, black, English language learners, Hispanic, multirace, poverty, special education and white.

No Child Left Behind divided students into subgroups as well, but it didn't set different goals for students by subgroup.

For example, under No Child Left Behind, 95 percent of all third-graders had to pass math by 2013 for a school to meet education standards. All third-graders, black, white, poor, special needs or otherwise, had to meet the same goal.

But under Plan 2020, the percentage of third-graders required to pass math in 2013 is different for each subgroup.

Some black parents like Tim Robinson whose two sons attend Alberta Elementary and Englewood Elementary, are taking exception to lower standards for minority children. Robinson's view that the lowered standards are "preparing our boys for prison" is more extreme than most, but concern over a bar lowered for minority students is widely expressed.

Other parents raised issue not only with the difference in expectations, but also that families weren't properly notified of the changes.

Andrea Alston, the mother of a black student with special needs who's transferring from Central High School to Pleasant Grove High School, said she knew about Plan 2020 but had heard nothing about the plan's accountability standards by subgroup. She said school systems should have notified parents of the change.

"If this was of value and interest to the parents, why didn't local school boards tell this to the parents?" she said. "Plan 2020 says it's going to close the achievement gap and every student is going to graduate, but how is this going to benefit that?"

Depending on the way one processes the issue, setting uniform standards or different standards could be setting the targeted groups up for failure. While Jeff Gordon, who is a former member of the Tuscaloosa City Board of Education, calls the lowered standards unacceptable, Shanthia Washington, an education administrator for the Alabama Department of Education, says that they reflect and respond to student performance on the latest standardized test data.

"The purpose in (setting higher annual percentage increases for the lower performing subgroups) is to try to give ambitious but obtainable goals for each subgroup," she said. "With the old system, they all had to adhere to the same goal, but some might have only had 20 percent proficiency."

After the 2013-2014 school year, Washington said the accountability aspect of Plan 2020 will change somewhat. Instead of going by state goals for each subgroup, school systems will be allowed to use the test data from their own students to set their goals.

07 17, 2013
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