Many felt that the No Child Left Behind requirement to have 100% student proficiency in mathematics and literacy was unrealistic, but some are now wondering if the new academic goals set out by the Washington, D.C. school district — which are based on race and ethnicity — are taking realism too far. Others, however, are saying that by setting out targets that vary by race, ethnicity, location and even by school, the District is simply following the lead set by other states all over the country.
Those charged with designing the standards say that the focus is on closing achievement gaps as soon as possible, but meanwhile the benchmarks are set up in such a way as to demand the fastest progress from those farthest behind. Unfortunately, the optics of this policy make some parents think they're prejudicial.
The Washington Post uses Anacostia High to illustrate how the new standards are applied. Anacostia, where the students are mainly African-American and drawn from some of the poorest areas of the city, will need to increase the number of students who are at grade level in reading four times by 2017 in order to meet its individual benchmarks. However, even if the benchmarks are met, that would still mean that fewer than 60% of Anacostia's students would be proficient in literacy. In contrast, Schools Without Walls, located in Northwest Washington and a magnet school that draws the best district students, will be required to have more than 99% of its students at the same proficiency level.
Setting different aspirations for different groups of children represents a sea change in national education policy, which for years has prescribed blanket goals for all students. Some education experts see the new approach as a way to speed achievement for black, Latino and low-income students, but some parents can't help but feel that less is being expected of their children.
Alicia Rucker, a mother of 6 children — all of whom have either graduated or are currently enrolled in D.C. public schools — says that she doesn't understand the rationale used by the officials that by expecting less from some students they will be able to help them achieve more. District leaders, however, claim that this is not what they're doing at all. Instead, by setting realistic, achievable goals, they will finally be able to bring about real improvements in academic outcomes for those who have traditionally been left behind.
Ultimately, whether the District's goals — or the country's goals — are ambitious enough to close achievement gaps is a matter of judgment, said Andrew J. Rotherham, a past member of the Virginia Board of Education who writes and consults on education issues. It's a matter of what the public is willing to accept.
"Look, our schools are political creations," Rotherham said. "You've got to start from there. Decisions about them are politically derived."