Dubiously Closing the Achievement Gap

09/11/2012 04:08 pm ET | Updated Nov 11, 2012

Co-authored by Pedro Noguera

This July, the Virginia Department of Education announced a new plan to hold students and teachers accountable for passing state exams, but with different goals for different racial and ethnic groups. These goals are called Annual Measurable Objectives (AMOs) and the new goals are based on students' performance on last year's state test, the Standards of Learning (SOL) test. The SOL tests and the AMOs are "designed for the specific purpose of cutting in half the gap between Virginia's lowest- and highest-performing schools," said Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia I. Wright in a press release. Virginia received a waiver from the federal government in order to use the SOL and AMOs to satisfy test score reporting and analysis requirements under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law.

This is a wrongheaded decision that will only make a bad policy worse. It is unconscionable that students of color, students with disabilities, and English-language learners are expected to pass the test in lower scores than white and Asian students. The Virginia Department of Education has essentially institutionalized low expectations. This will have negative consequences for all students, but especially for children of color.

Under these new provisions, schools will be responsible for reaching the goals set for each racial subgroup. The SOL passing scores will stay the same for all students regardless of race or ethnicity. In the AMOs, however, schools are expected to reach thresholds for passing that will vary for different racial and ethnic groups. In reading, 90 percent and 92 percent of white and Asian students, respectively, are expected to pass per school, while anywhere from 59 to 80 percent of students in the other subgroups are expected to pass. The math goals are even more offensive. This year, 45 percent of black students and 52 percent of Hispanic students are expected to pass per school, while 68 percent of whites and 82 percent of Asians are expected to pass the math SOL test. Lowering standards and expectations is no way to prepare our kids for the 21st century.

While the intent of the policy may be to narrow the racial and ethnic achievement gap, the projections for blacks, Hispanics, ELLs, and students with disabilities are nowhere near those of their white and Asian counterparts. Teachers already face a host of stressors like long lists of skills to teach, too many tests to give, and recently, linking job security to student test scores. Are we asking teachers to lower their expectations of students based on the color of their skin, the language they speak at home, or a learning classification?

The bigger problem is that we have been using testing inappropriately ever since the enactment of NCLB. Testing is a tool, not a panacea. Students don't get smarter by being tested. The real value of assessment is to use it to diagnose the learning needs of students and then to get the information to teachers in a timely manner so that they can act upon it.

Possibly in an effort to avoid using charged racial and ethnic terminology, the Virginia Department of Education also introduced a new Proficiency Gap Group classification system for groups of students "who historically have had difficulty meeting the commonwealth's achievement standards." Proficiency Gap Group One includes students with disabilities, English-language learners and economically disadvantaged students, regardless of race and ethnicity. Groups Two and Three consist of all black and Hispanic students, respectively, including those in Group One. By including all blacks or all Hispanics in a Proficiency Gap Group, the Virginia DOE is sending the message that students are only important relative to the racial and ethnic groups to which they belong. This completely ignores the diversity within groups and will make it even more difficult for students to meet the learning needs of the students they serve.

Creating subgroups of students based on race and setting lower than average expectations for passing rates on state exams is essentially codifying into policy what social psychologists Joshua Aronson and Claude Steele have termed "stereotype threat." Stereotype threat refers to "being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one's group." Several empirical studies show that stereotype threat negatively affects academic achievement scores. In one study, black and white students were asked to take a verbal aptitude test, and controlling for SAT scores, black students scored lower when the stereotype threat was activated via a "personal information" questionnaire prior to the test, as compared to black students who did not fill out the questionnaire or white students. In the case of the Virginia's AMOs, black and Hispanic students may receive messages that they are less intelligent than their white and Asian peers overtly (and not just in a questionnaire), thus reinforcing pervasive negative stereotypes about their academic abilities. And if this message is repeated year after year for six years, can we realistically expect students of color to close the achievement gap?

Low expectations in school are a precursor for low expectations in life. We are sending the message that we expect low levels of success for our children of color in academia, on the job market, and wherever else their unwritten futures may take them. By setting school-level passing rates by race groups, the Virginia Department of Education is doing a disservice to its young people from communities of color. All our children should be held to the same high academic standards for success.