When the federal No Child Left Behind Act was passed by a bipartisan majority in Congress and signed by President Bush in 2002, its goal was to have nearly all children in federally funded school districts performing at grade level in math and reading by 2014. To accomplish this, NCLB imposed stringent new reporting requirements. Among the benefits of these requirements was that school districts could no longer hide their failure to adequately educate minority and disabled students under aggregate test scores.
A decade later, the federal law is being gutted in more than half the states -- including Maryland, Virginia and D.C. -- by waivers granted by Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
It didn't take long for Virginia, which received its waiver in June, to take advantage of the reprieve. In July, the state Board of Education released new "annual measurable objectives" to replace annual yearly progress targets under NCLB, which educators have long claimed are unrealistic. But the new AMOs contain lower expectations for the same groups of students that NCLB was most intended to help.
Under the new rules, just 66 percent of all Virginia students are expected to pass the harder Virginia Standards of Learning math test by 2014, instead of 100 percent as previously required under NCLB. Based on past SOL test scores, expectations are already much higher for Asian (85 percent) and white (78 percent) students than they are for Hispanic (57 percent), African-American (50 percent) and students with disabilities (39 percent) in the state's lowest-performing schools.
So with the U.S. Department of Education's blessing, Virginia created differing performance expectations for students based on their race, ethnicity, family income or disability level -- the exact opposite of NCLB's original intent.
The political pushback has been so severe that Virginia recently agreed to redo its month-old AMOs so that they "require significant closing of achievement gaps between subgroups of students." However, as some observers have pointed out, closing "achievement gaps" is a political goal, not an academic one. For example, if high-performing schools do worse on the SOLs while low-performing schools stay the same, the "gap" will narrow even though no real academic progress has been made.
NCLB may have been a heavy handed, centralized approach to education with an unrealistic time line. But at least it tried to do away with what Bush called "the soft bigotry of low expectations." Virginia must do likewise.