A plan by Florida to set goals for students in math and reading based on their race has educators and community activists furious in Palm Beach County and across the state.
On Tuesday, the State Board of Education passed a revised strategic plan that says that by 2018, it wants 90 percent of Asian students, 88 percent of white students, 81 percent of Hispanics and 74 percent of black students to be reading at or above grade level. For math, the goals are 92 percent of Asian kids proficient, whites at 86 percent, Hispanics at 80 percent and blacks at 74 percent. It also measures by other groupings, such as poverty and disabilities.
“To expect less from one demographic and more from another is just a little off-base,” said Juan Lopez, magnet coordinator at John F. Kennedy Middle School in Riviera Beach. JFK Middle has a black student population of about 88 percent. “Our kids, although they come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, they still have the ability to learn,” Lopez said. “To dumb down the expectations for one group, that seems a little unfair.”
Others in the community agreed with Lopez’s assessment. But the Florida Department of Education said the goals recognize that not every group is starting from the same point and are meant to be ambitious but realistic.
For instance, the percentage of white students scoring at or above grade level (as measured by whether they scored a 3 or higher on the reading FCAT) was 69 percent in 2011-2012, according to the state. For black students, it was 38 percent, and for Hispanics, it was 53 percent.
In addition, State Board of Education Chairwoman Kathleen Shanahan said that setting goals for different subgroups was needed to comply with terms of a waiver that Florida and 32 other states have from some provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
The waivers have been granted to free states from some federal regulations.
“We have set a very high goal for all students to reach in Florida,” Shanahan said.
On Thursday, the Florida Department of Education held a media call to defend the strategic plan and the reading and math targets, saying that, if each subgroup follows the trajectory laid out in the strategic plan, all students will be 100 percent proficient by the 2022-2023 school year.
But Palm Beach County School Board vice-chairwoman Debra Robinson isn’t buying the rationale.
“I’m somewhere between complete and utter disgust and anger and disappointment with humanity,” Robinson said. She said she has been receiving complaints from upset black and Hispanic parents since the state board took its action this week.
Robinson called the state board’s actions essentially “proclaiming racism” and said she wants Palm Beach County to continue to educate every child with the same expectations, regardless of race.
“DOE (Department of Education) be damned,” she said.
School district spokesman Nat Harrington said the goal at Palm Beach County schools remains unchanged by the state’s strategic plan.
“Our goal here in Palm Beach County is to get all students proficient and beyond and to get them college or career ready,” Harrington said. “We’re not going to lower our standards for any students. We’re not going to stop attempting to close the gap.”
Other states, such as Virginia, have also come under fire in recent months for setting achievement goals based on race. The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus sent a letter to Gov. Bob McDonnell in August after that state released its new goals, calling the benchmarks “insulting and narrow-minded.”
LaTanzia Jackson, chairwoman of the Coalition for Black Student Achievement in Palm Beach County, said that, as an African American and a parent, she was insulted by the state’s plan.
“It’s setting us back into times we have fought so hard to come away from,” Jackson said. “It’s a slap in the face to the African American community and the Hispanic community.”
Added Jackson, “It sets us back a hundred years to when the expectations for a person were based on the color of your skin.”
Palm Beach Post staff writer John Kennedy contributed to this report.