Education Nation: What you need to know about race-based academic goals

1. What is the No Child Left Behind Act, and why do some states have waivers from it?

The No Child Left Behind Act, a federal school-accountability law passed by Congress in 2001, called for all students to be proficient in reading and math by the end of the 2013-14 school year. Schools are required to report on the progress of all students, but they must also break out certain groups of students, including racial minorities, English-language learners, and students in special education. The law is several years overdue for a rewrite, and Congress continues to struggle to pass a new school accountability law. In the meantime, more and more schools appear unlikely to meet that 100 percent proficiency target. The U.S. Department of Education announced in 2010 it would invite states to apply for waivers from that 100 percent goal. (The NCLB Act gives the U.S. Secretary of Education broad authority to waive parts of the law.) As part of the waiver process, federal officials allowed states to propose new, more-realistic academic goals for schools so long as those goals sought to dramatically close the achievement gap between groups of students, such as between racial minorities and their white peers.

2. Will all states get a waiver?

So far, 34 states plus the District of Columbia have been approved for waivers. Several more states are waiting for a decision from federal officials. A few states have indicated they won’t apply for waivers, in part because the federal education department set conditions on waivers. For example, to get a waiver states have to agree to evaluate teachers in part on student test scores. Texas and California, for instance, so far have not submitted waiver applications that adhere to all of the conditions. Any state that does not get a waiver must abide by the NCLB law as written, which includes the goal for 100 percent student proficiency by the end of next school year.

3. In states with a waiver, what happens if schools do not meet new academic goals that states set?

It depends. As part of the waiver process, federal officials allowed states to design their own school accountability systems, creating rewards, consequences, and interventions for schools depending on how well they are educating students. Generally, these new academic goals are used, at a minimum, to identify and help schools with the largest achievement gaps. For some states, the goals are mostly aspirational, with no significant consequences tied to them. Other states make these goals a factor in a letter grade or score that’s given to a particular school. And still in other states, schools that don’t hit these goals can be targeted for specific school-improvement efforts or sanctioned.

4. What are the arguments for and against the race-based academic goals that many states are using?

The argument against using race-based targets is that a state is setting different expectations for kids based on their race or their family’s income level, as opposed to having the same high expectations for all students. Some civil rights organizations have raised questions about whether the waivers are unfair to racial minorities, students in special education, or students who are still learning English. But some state and district officials point out that those groups of students are often farther behind their non-minority, more-advantaged peers, and say their waiver plans set high but achievable goals for closing the gap. What’s more, these new goals often require schools to make faster progress for students who are the farthest behind than for other students.

5. Historically, why are there such drastic differences in achievement among various groups of students, such as racial minorities, low-income populations, and those in special education?

Sociologists and educators could spend years debating this question, but there appear to be several reasons. First, students from low-income families tend to struggle more than their peers, no matter what their racial ethnicity. Students from low-income families may come to school hungry, for example, or not have access to high-quality medical care. And schools have long struggled with certain subgroups of students who may or may not be members of an ethnic minority, including students in special education and English-language learners. Generally, however, students tend to do better in school if they are from stable communities, if their parents are educated, and if they had some sort of early-learning opportunity, either at home or in a more formal setting. Lower-income students – including racial minorities, as well as white students – don’t always have access to those resources.

Michele McNeil and Alyson Klein are reporters with Education Week.

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