Florida’s Race-Based Academic Goals Bring Controversy

In a vote last week, the Florida Board of Education approved a new set of student achievement goals that differ based on students' race and other characteristics, CBS Tampa reports.

The plan, which sets achievement targets to be met by 2018 based on each students' race or ethnic background, has already encountered opposition from educators and activists across the state.

Juan Lopez, who is a magnet coordinator at John F. Kennedy Middle School in Riviera Beach, said that setting different standards for kids based on their background was "off base," and an implication that it is race, above all, that determines the level of students' achievement. Although 88% of JFK Middle School population is black, their family life, socioeconomic background and other factors that effect their ability to learn differ greatly, Lopez pointed out.

The Florida Department of Education explained that the policy doesn't attempt to lower expectations for some racial groups, but simply acknowledges the fact that not everyone begins their education equipped with the same set of tools. The goals set out by the new policy are very ambitious for all races, but are tempered with realism.

The board passed a revised strategic plan that says that by 2018, it wants 90 percent of Asian students, 88 percent of white students, 81 percent of Hispanics and 74 percent of black students to be reading at or above grade level. For math, the goals are 92 percent of Asian kids to be proficient, whites at 86 percent, Hispanics at 80 percent and blacks at 74 percent. It also measures by other groupings, such as poverty and disabilities.

The policy is an acknowledgment that due to the achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and their white and Asian peers, they would have a much higher mountain to climb to meet achievement metrics that were uniform across all racial and ethnic groups. Last year, for example, while 69% of white students tested at grade level on the reading FCAT, less than 40% of black students met the same standard. While the picture isn't as bleak for Hispanic kids, of whom 53% were at grade level, they still lag their white classmates by more than 15%.

In addition, State Board of Education Chairwoman Kathleen Shanahan said that setting goals for different subgroups was needed to comply with terms of a waiver that Florida and 32 other states have from some provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. These waivers were used to make the states independent from some federal regulations.

This explanation isn't convincing to the vice-chairwoman of the Palm Beach County School Board. Debra Robinson, who claims that her fighting words – that the policy is "proclaiming racism – reflect the view of many students and families in her district.

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