Virginia schools officials are backing away from a plan that would set different achievement goals for minority and low-income students on standardized math tests, instead preparing to ask the state school board next week to set a benchmark of 73 percent math proficiency for all students by 2016.
To close the achievement gap and get all students to the 73 percent level, Virginia teachers will be tasked with helping minority, disabled and English-language-learner students make large gains every year for the next five years on the Standards of Learning tests.
Critics of Virginia's original proposal, including the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, charged that holding minority students to lower standards than white students would be a prejudicial self-fulling prophecy.
However, the new annual goals, set through a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law, raise questions about how attainable the plan is. The pass rate for special education students will need to increase by 8 percentage points every year, and students who don't speak English as a first language will have to make gains almost as dramatic.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia Wright acknowledged that the goals are ambitious. But she also says students and teachers will be able to make dramatic gains because pass rates have dropped dramatically on new, more rigorous versions of the tests, and officials are expecting a significant rebound as students and teachers adjust to the new exams.
"These are aggressive goals, and that means aggressive interventions must be put in place immediately," said Wright, who admitted she was "worried about students with disabilities" as well as English-language learners. "Perhaps school divisions will have to look more closely at these [students] and reprioritize that funding."
Originally, Virginia had planned to set varying benchmarks for student achievement: For example, white students were expected to pass at a rate of 78 percent by 2016, while black students were to hit 57 percent. The District is proceeding with a similar set of disparate standards, citing the groups' different starting points.
Kris Amundson, a former chairwoman of the Fairfax County School Board and the director of strategic communications at think tank Education Sector, called Virginia's new proposal "an improvement, no question."
"The concern has really been expectations. If the commonwealth says, 'Oh golly, we only expect half the black kids to pass this year,' if you look out in classrooms, you may see faces and go, 'Well I don't really have to worry about that kid,' " Amundson said.
In Fairfax County Public Schools, only white and Asian students are already safe above the 73 percent pass rate after scores took a hit last year on the refurbished exam.
"FCPS will continue to pursue its own standard of 90 percent pass rates for all subgroups," said spokesman John Torre, noting that the last time the SOL math test was changed, Fairfax's pass rates rebounded quickly. "We expect the same turnaround in scores to occur again."