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Virginia's soft bigotry

December 13, 2012 12:10 am

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VIRGINIA's new educational standards vary according to students' race. You heard that right. Is this a shocking example of latter-day bigotry? A necessary accommodation? Or what? Let's consider.

The state developed the standards with the approval of the U.S. Department of Education as part of its waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Now, for a Virginia school to achieve an acceptable rating, 45 percent of its black students must pass a standardized math test. But 52 percent of Hispanics, 68 percent of whites, and 82 percent of Asians must clear that bar. In reading, 76 percent of blacks, 80 percent of Hispanics, 90 percent of whites, and 92 percent of Asians must pass.

Why different criteria for different races? "[W]hen it comes to measuring progress," argues Patricia Wright, Virginia's superintendent of public instruction, "we have to consider that students start at different points." The aim of the color-coded standards is to target differences in achievement levels by race and bring everyone up to the same standard within six years. The varying standards are tied to scores achieved by different races--measured in the aggregate--on the state's Standards of Learning. The idea is to use the standards to identify schools that are not closing the achievement gap, and then to provide remediation.

Members of the General Assembly's Black Caucus quickly raised Cain. State Sen. Mamie Locke, leader of the group, wrote Gov. McDonnell, "This 'aim-low' approach is insulting and narrow-minded. As an educator, I am appalled that the commonwealth would put forward such a proposal that categorizes children in a way that hearkens back to Virginia's inglorious past."

To be clear, the differing standards measure the schools' progress more than that of individual students, who must get the same number of questions right to pass regardless of ancestry or where they fall on a Sherwin-Williams color chart. But Ms. Locke and her colleagues are right: "Thinking by race" in education creates big problems.

First, who is black? Who is Hispanic? Is a half-Asian, half-white student Asian or white? Is an Afro-Hispanic black or Hispanic? Wouldn't the state's measurements be more accurate if it swabbed kids' DNA? Pried apart the branches on their family tree? There was once a vocabulary to assist the state in what it envisions: "Octoroon." "Half-caste." "Chigro." Alas, such terms grew out of slavery, colonialism, and other systems that assumed some human colors were inherently superior to others. To resurrect such notions is, at very best, to be acutely tone-deaf.

SAMEY-SAME?

And what broad categories! For example, "Asian." Will Virginia really lump young Japanese-Americans, who usually come from affluent backgrounds, with the children of illiterate Hmong tribesmen who landed on these shores after South Vietnam fell?

Second, associating races with different standards sets up what President George W. Bush rightly called "the soft bigotry of low expectations" and may actually inject prejudice (consciously or subconsciously) into both teachers and students. What a cruel disservice to a child to even hint that her abilities are circumscribed by her ethnicity.

Factors other than race can be good predictors of school achievement--and of where public resources should be targeted. For example, kids from single-parent homes or lower socioeconomic environments have more trouble achieving. Why not focus on the gaps in those realities?

"Virginia has done something very, very wrong," says Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust. "What Virginia said is, black kids in our state should not achieve at grade level, but at the highest level that black kids have achieved in the past. That's not a forward-looking goal."

The departments of education, state and federal, aren't intentionally fostering racism. But they've established standards that would leave any geriatric Klansman nodding and saying, "See there!" Closing the achievement gap is imperative. Intellectually handicapping whole races--which are composed of stereotype-defying individuals--can only subvert that objective.





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