Virginia's new achievement standards have raised eyebrows.
Part of the state's new standards dictate a specific percentage of racial group that should pass school exams, a move that has angered the Virginia Black Caucus. The caucus' chairwoman, Democratic state Sen. Mamie Locke, says the new standards marginalize students by creating different goals for students of various backgrounds.
"Nothing is going to work for me if there is a differentiation being established for different groups of students," Locke told the Daily Press. "Whether that's race, socio-economic status or intellectual ability. If there is a differentiation, I have a problem with it."
Virginia Secretary of Education Laura Fornash disagrees with Virginia Black Caucus' assertions.
"Please be assured that the McDonnell administration does not hold a student of a particular race or income level, or those of any other subgroup, to a different standard," Fornash wrote in a three-page letter explaining the changed standards.
The standards do not pose different pass rates for different groups: regardless of race, each student has to correctly answer the same number of test questions in order to pass. The difference lies in the expectation of passing from groups of different backgrounds. The new rules were designed as part of Virginia's waiver from No Child Left Behind, along with 31 other states and Washington, D.C.
For instance, only 45 percent of black students are required to pass the math state test while 82 percent for Asian Americans, 68 percent for whites and 52 percent for Hispanics are required to pass. In reading, 92 percent of Asian students, 90 percent of white students, 80 percent of hispanic students, 76 percent of black students, and 59 percent of students with disabilities are required to pass the state exam.
The state says these percentages are based on previous pass rates for the various groups, but many school officials aren't satisfied, saying that if the state expects less performance from a particular group of students, they will lose the motivation to perform better.
Educator Carolyn J. Smith told Pilot Online that the focus should be on boosting performance in underperforming racial groups rather than expecting less.
"The ones in the lower grades, if they don't feel like they can do math, they'll give up," Smith told Virginian-Pilot columnist Roger Chelsey, "And some parents say, 'I can't do math, either.'"
This belief then becomes a legacy, according to Smith, a cycle that one has to break as early as the child's first year in school.
The issue of black and Hispanic students underperforming their Asian and white counterparts might have more to do with segregation and expectations than ability.
According to author and presidential professor at the University of California, Los Angeles Jeannie Oakes eliminating traditional tracking methods that measure performance based on race is particularly important to guaranteeing equal success among different races.
“Once we put students in groups, we give them very different opportunities to learn -- with strong patterns of inequality across teachers, experience, and competence," Oakes says. "There was this pervasive view that Latino and African American kids can’t measure up in a way that more affluent or white kids can and we can’t do anything about it.”
If the standards are set this way, students as well as teachers begin believing and fulfilling the prophesy, according to author andfreelance writer Julie Halpert.
"...With little motive to succeed academically, the children didn’t get high grades or score well on standardized tests," Halpert says. "In other words, they performed exactly as the teachers predicted, in response to the climate of low expectations."
Instead, many educators believe "detracking" or "heterogeneous or mixed-ability grouping" ensures success across racial lines. Though the practice of detracking is still contested, some educators believe lowering expectations should simply not be an option.
Mary T. Christian, a career educator and member of the Hampton NAACP's education committee, said she's shocked at the low pass rates for some groups.
"Lower expectations are detrimental to students' growth," said Mary Christian, career educator as well as former state legislator. When you lower expectations, there is no challenge. Students and teachers will do the minimum."