Florida sets education standards based on race, ethnicity

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New education standards approved this week in Florida set goals for public school student performance based on race and ethnicity — with lower benchmarks for African-American, Native American, and Hispanic students, and higher ones for white and Asian-American students.

“We need a strong plan to support our dynamic education system,” State Board Chairman Gary Chartrand said in a statement announcing the approval of the state’s strategic plan for public schools and state colleges through 2018, which includes the new race-based benchmarks.

“I am confident that these strategies and goals will put Florida on a path toward raising student achievement, improving educator quality, and expanding school choice,” he added.

According to the plan, Pre-K through grade 12 students will be assessed with their racial subgroups in mind “to reduce the achievement gap.”

By 2018, 90 percent of Asian students, 88 percent of white students, 81 percent of Hispanic students, 82 percent of Native American students and 74 percent of African-American students are expected to be at-or-above grade level reading standards.

Additinally, in the next six years, the state is aiming for 92 percent of Asian students, 86 percent of white students, 80 percent of Hispanic students, 81 percent of Native American students and 74 percent of African American students to be at-or-above grade level math standards.

Economically disadvantaged students, students with disabilities and students who are learning English as a second language are exempt from the new benchmarks. The new system is designed to categorize and gauge racial academic performance, and does not affect individual students’ grades.

Currently 76 percent of Asian students, 69 percent of white students, 53 percent of Hispanic students, 55 percent of Native American students and 38 percent of African-American students are at or above their grade level reading standards. And 82 percent of Asian students, 68 percent of white students, 55 percent of Hispanic students, 58 percent of Native American students and 40 percent of African-American are at or above their grade level math standards.

During a Thursday conference call with reporters Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart asserted that the breakdown is part of a long term goal to bring 100 percent of students, of every race, at or above grade level by 2022-2023. She added that the six year goals are the most ambitious the state has adopted in its history.

“The board determined that disaggregating the targets was important after examining current data that shows an unacceptable gap in achievement among demographic subgroups. A sobering reminder that too many students are being left behind. This problem is particularly acute for some demographic subgroups,” Stewart explained the reasoning.

“The target proficiency levels are very aggressive and they reflect the outlook by the board that none of the demographic subgroups will achieve 100 percent proficiency by the end of the period outlined in the strategic plan,” Stewart continued. “Nevertheless the board did set higher expectations for the rate of growth in proficiency level for those subgroups with the lowest percentage of students currently performing at grade level.”

Stewart stressed that the plan does not set lower standards for students in demographic subgroups, and instead puts accelerated goals on the students with lower achievement percentages to meet 100 percent proficiency over ten years.

The District of Columbia introduced a similar plan for different standards for racial and ethnic groups last month. At the time, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush penned an op-ed lamenting the lowering of standards for minority students, advocating that “schools’ expectations should be colorblind.”

“As a nation, we have rejected police use of racial profiling on the streets,” he wrote. “By what rationale do we now accept it from educators in the classroom?”

In the same op-ed Bush praised Florida schools — prior to the introduction of the new standards — for narrowing the achievement gap between black, Hispanic and white students.

“Over the past decade, Florida has had the largest achievement gains for students with disabilities, the third-largest for low-income students and the fourth-largest in the country for African-Americans,” he wrote. “The U.S. Department of Education identified Florida as one of only three states substantially closing the achievement gap between black and white elementary students in both reading and math. Florida’s 4th grade Hispanic students now read as well as or better than the average student in 21 other states.”

While the new blueprint is meant to improve conditions for Florida’s students, not all Floridians are pleased by the development.

“All children should be held to high standards and for them to say that for African-Americans the goal is below other students is unacceptable,” Patrick Franklin, president and CEO of the Urban League of Palm Beach County, told the Sun-Sentinel.

The Sentinel also noted that Winnie Tang, the president of the Asian American Federation of Florida, found the new goals detrimental to Asian students too.

“We still have a lot of students who are average and below average. Being [perceived as] a higher achiever really hurts a lot of students,” she said.

The Orlando Sentinel reports that the standards are required under Florida’s waiver from No Child Left Behind.

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Caroline May