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Florida's Race-based Goals For Students Spark Debate

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The State Board of Education looked prepared to vote -- without discussion or debate -- when board member John Padget pointed out a passage on page 169 of the board's agenda book.

"I just asked my fellow board members if we are happy with the signal this sends?" he said.

The board went on to adopt the item Padget had highlighted: reading and math goals for students that varied by race, among other categories.

Ever since, Florida has been embroiled in a debate about the message sent by its new race-based academic targets, which are lower for black and Hispanic students than for other children.

The state, for example, wants 90 percent of its Asian students, 88 percent of its white students, 81 percent of its Hispanic students and 74 percent of its black students reading well by 2018.

It also has set goals by race for each district and each public school. So while Orange County's black youngsters aren't expected to do as well as its white students, those enrolled at Hunter's Creek Elementary are expected to do better than those at Windermere Elementary.

The goals are meant to a be a midpoint on a path to getting all kids mastering key academics, and they would require a faster pace of improvement for struggling students to help them catch up.

But that intent was likely lost in the "resounding negative perception," said Orange Superintendent Barbara Jenkins in an email. "The undertone of setting lower targets for minority students for many feels like a step back into a disturbing history."

Others offered even sharper criticism. The Orlando-based advocacy group Fund Education Now sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education on Thursday complaining of the "overtly racist tone" of Florida's plan.

"The Board's plan makes race and data more important than human beings," said Christine Bramuchi, one of the group's founders.

But some praised state leaders for shinning a bright light on the long-standing public-school struggles of certain groups, including some minorities and students with disabilities.

"If you actually achieved the goals that are in the state's strategic plan ... I would be tap dancing on the table," said Mark Halpert of the Florida Advocacy Coalition on Learning Disabilities. "It's a game changer, if they do that."

But Halpert said the new goals won't mean anything if Florida doesn't follow through with "strategies and action plans" to help students reach them.

Gov. Rick Scott weighed in a week after the vote to say the effort should have been explained better.

"I want them to focus on how do we make sure every child is proficient," he told reporters Thursday in a video provided by the News Service of Florida.

The Florida Department of Education devised the goals to acknowledge current performance and then show how it could cut achievement gaps in half by 2018. This year, 40 percent of black students were on grade level in math, for example, compared with 82 percent of Asians. Under the new goals, that 42-percentage-point gap would be cut to 18 percentage points in six years.

The new goals were required by the U.S. Department of Education under the state's waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law, which was granted in February.

Federal officials also required that the goals be written for five racial or ethnic categories and three groups of children who typically lag on state tests: youngsters living in low-income families, with disabilities and still learning English.

If the rate of improvement outlined in the goals could be continued for a decade, all Florida students would be proficient in math and reading by the 2022-23 school year, said Education Commissioner Pam Stewart.

The Education Trust, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., devised the mathematical model that Florida and 14 other states used to set their new achievement goals.

The goals are broken down by groups because broader looks at data don't always pinpoint the problems, said Amy Wilkins, a vice president at the group.

"The unexamined thing is unattended to," Wilkins said. "We don't solve problems by hiding them."

As a black mother, Wilkins said, she understands the discomfort created by race-based academic targets and "entirely empathizes with the nervousness."

Still, her group believes firmly that Florida needs the new goals, which are meant to be applied to groups, not individual students.

But for some it's hard not to take the goals as personally discouraging, said Allie Braswell, president of the Central Florida Urban League. "I know some parents are worried. Does this mean that some people think my child, because of their race, has different abilities?"

Braswell said it makes sense to break down and study achievement data by race, but that information should be used to help those who are behind, not send "you're not as good" messages to some students.

The new goals will not be part of Florida's A-to-F school-grading system. But the state will report whether schools, districts and the state meet the goals. Those that do not will have to write improvement plans, state officials said.

lpostal@tribune.com or 407-420-5273 ___

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