Yep, it’s happened. Virginia (who like 32 other states opted out of NCLB) has done it. They are the second state to institute race-based testing goals (Florida did it too, but their bar wasn’t quite so low). In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past 10 years, let me summarize: Asian students outperform White students who outperform Latino students who (sometimes) outperform African American students. Using that very consistent data, Virginia has instituted passing rates that are different for each demographic. Asians must reach the 82nd percentile, Whites the 68th, Latinos the 52nd and African Americans the 45th.
Their justification for this: We must meet students where they start and develop realistic expectations for their academic achievement.
Now, I bet some of you are waiting for me to be outraged. To declare like many others that this stinks of racism, segregation, and Jim Crow. It does. But what is marginally different here is the reasoning. This decision has not been made off the basis of skin color; it has been made off the basis of data. Now, here is where I get upset (you knew it was coming).
The ‘data’ they are using to determine new student standards is not what I call ‘clean’ data. It is derivative of standardized tests which we all know lack reliability in ethnic minority groups. In other words, we decided decades ago that most of these tests are culturally biased, so they have been, and are, an inaccurate measure of Latino and Black students’ knowledge, skills, and abilities. Problem one.
Problem two. Not EVERY Asian child performs well and not every Black child performs poorly. By altering these expectations we will see a plethora of floor and ceiling effects in which some Asian children will perpetually be failing and some Black children will perpetually appear to be ‘gifted’. We already have an awful ‘special needs’ diagnostic system wherein children are tracked from second grade through twelfth with no hopes of ever losing whatever poorly measured label has been placed upon them. This will make it worse.
Problem two point five. Fast forward 10 years and imagine the other 32 NCLB-rejecting states do this. What we see now are racially segregated colleges. Because Latino and Black students had lower expectations, they were given less rigorous and fewer learning opportunities, and are therefore less prepared for college than are Asian and White students (see The Miseducation of Generations for a discussion on educational opportunities).
Problem three. This is an emotional problem. The developmental psychologist in me is SCREAMING. How dare we tell our children we don’t believe they can perform as well as their friends? How dare we tell other children they are just better students than their friends? Anyone familiar with Carol Dweck’s work on motivation knows that when we praise students for being ‘smart’ instead of praising them for effort, they lose intrinsic motivation to learn and don’t challenge themselves for fear of finding out they really aren’t ‘smart’.
Problem four. This policy exacerbates present cultural biases. We already have very little understanding of the ways in which cultural variables (most notably language, behavioral expectations, and gender norms) affect students’ academic behaviors, and this policy is giving us a written and legal excuse NOT to care.
Problem five. Students perform well when they are given the tools and environment to do so. With lower expectations, we are giving Latino and Black students lesser tools and weaker environments. I predict that these students’ test scores across the board will dip to even lower than the new expectations. Data shows that raising expectations raises performance (though it often removes the mediating variables that actually improve student performance). Less popular data shows that when you lower the bar, you lower students’ performance.
I could go on, but I am out of steam. I get that administrators want to set realistic goals for students. But this is not the way. Why not set more realistic incremental goals and scaffold their learning opportunities so they can achieve them?
This is a short cut. Laziness. An admission of defeat. Hopelessness. Divisive.
My heart hurts for the children who will unknowingly be given less before they’ve had the opportunity to ask for more.