In a move that is drawing heavy criticism from parents, educators, school board members, and community advocates, Florida’s State Board of Education just approved a plan that sets educational achievement standards at different levels based on race. Under this new plan, white and Asian students are held to a higher standard than black and Hispanic students, with the expectation that 88% of white students and 90% of Asian students will be reading at grade level by 2018, while only 74% of black students and 81% of Hispanic students are expected to be reach that same goal. The goals for math proficiency are similar, with the highest targets set for white and Asian students and the lowest set for Hispanic and black students.
State officials have defended the move by arguing that they are setting high expectations for black and Hispanic students in terms of the amount of progress expected, while also being realistic about the fact that some students are lagging behind others in academic achievement. The targets in the new plan reflect the achievement gap in Florida’s educational system. Current statistics indicate that white and Asian students are demonstrating math and reading proficiency at much higher levels than black and Hispanic students. Florida’s Commissioner of Education, Pam Stewart, and other supporters of the new plan argue that expectations are actually higher for black and Hispanic students because the rate of growth expected of these students is higher than that expected of white and Asian students. Under Florida’s new plan, there will need to be a 36% increase in the number of black students reading at grade level by 2018, and only a 19% increase in the number of white students reading at grade level in that same time frame.
Despite these justifications, educators, parents and community members have expressed concern about the message a plan with race-based standards sends. Both the Broward Schools Superintendent and a Broward school board member have criticized the plan as acting to perpetuate the current system, where an achievement gap exists between white and Asian students and black and Hispanic students. Palm Beach County’s executive director of the Hispanic Human Resources Council, Jorge Avellana, has expressed skepticism over the plan’s ability to close the achievement gap and reach its purported goal of bringing 100% of students to grade level proficiency by 2022. Parents have voiced concern that the race-based standards are sending the message that black and Hispanic students are “sub par” purely because of their race. Asian American community leader Winnie Tang, president of the Asian American Federation of Florida, also takes issue with Florida’s new plan, pointing out that there are many underperforming Asian American students that suffer from being labeled as overachievers because of their race.
Florida’s controversial plan and the claims of state officials about “realistic expectations” seem to be part of a larger national trend driven by the Obama administration’s system regarding state waivers for No Child Left Behind. Under this system, states are allowed to adopt different standards for different groups of students, with the caveat that the students who perform the lowest are required to demonstrate the highest growth rates. The District of Columbia recently implemented a plan similar to Florida’s, using race-based standards and requiring larger growth for black and Hispanic students in terms of percentage points over time. This plan sparked criticism similar to Florida’s plan, as many parents and community members questioned how lowering expectations would encourage students to improve their performance.
State officials and the U.S. Department of Education continue to insist that race-based standards are meant to foster achievement while “trying to be realistic about what’s achievable in a short time frame.” However, a vocal group of parents, community members and educators remain unconvinced that race-based standards are the answer to closing the achievement gap and are concerned that lowering expectations for black and Hispanic students will have the opposite effect, sending the discriminatory and disheartening message that black and Hispanic students are not capable of achieving academically at the same rates as white and Asian students.