MIAMI — When the Florida Board of Education voted this month to set different goals for student achievement in reading and math by race and ethnicity, among other guidelines, the move was widely criticized as discriminatory and harmful to blacks and Hispanics.
But the state, which has been required to categorize achievement by racial, ethnic and other groups to the federal government for more than 10 years, intends to stand by its new strategic plan. Education officials say the targets, set for 2018, have been largely misunderstood.
The end goal, they say, is that all students will be reading and doing math at grade level by 2023; the six-year goal is an interim step.
The goals are calculated as part of a waiver granted by the federal government under its No Child Left Behind law. Florida is one of several states required to cut its achievement gap in half for all students by 2018, including those who are black, Hispanic, white, Asian, low-income, disabled or speak English as a second language.
The number of ill-prepared students in Florida remains troubling, as do the differences by race and ethnicity: 38 percent of black students currently read at grade level. That compares with 53 percent of Hispanics, 69 percent of whites and 76 percent of Asians.
In Florida, halving the achievement gap means that by 2018, 72 percent of low-income children, 74 percent of black students, 81 percent of Hispanics, 88 percent of white students and 90 percent of Asians should be reading at grade level. The projected gains would be larger for those on the lower end of the scale.
“This is a snapshot of roughly halfway through that 10-year mark,” said the Florida education commissioner, Pam Stewart. “The 100 percent is the ultimate goal, and that is stated within the strategic plan.”
But parent advocacy groups, and some school board presidents and superintendents, said establishing lower goals for black and Hispanic students sends a disturbing message that those students are not as capable as others.
“Setting goals on skin color implies it somehow affects what is being measured,” said Melissa J. Erickson, president of Fund Education Now, a parent-driven advocacy organization in a letter sent Wednesday to the federal Department of Education. “I believe our nation long ago abandoned this type of view.”
Superintendents also say there is an element of uncertainty in the targets because the state will introduce a new national assessment in two years.
“We have no idea how students will perform or how individual subgroups will differ in their performance,” said the Miami-Dade County schools superintendent, Alberto M. Carvalho, calling it “unthinkable” that the state would set these goals at this time.
But Florida is not alone in setting interim goals by race and other categories. An analysis this week by Education Week found that of the 34 states with new accountability plans, only 8 set the same targets for all students.
Many students in Florida and elsewhere lag far behind the goals first stated by No Child Left Behind, the 2001 federal law that requires schools to measure student achievement, make improvements or be held accountable. Under the law, all students were expected to become fully proficient in reading and math by 2014.
But most states, including Florida, need more time to hit that mark, which is why they have requested waivers. The waivers allow for more realistic goals and delay the target date, in Florida’s case until 2023.
“If you look historically at the achievement gap, we have not moved that gap much,” Ms. Stewart said. “I believe it is a bold target that we are looking to reach. I think one of the first things we can do is actually look at the gap. I can’t change something if I don’t look it.”
In a recent speech, Arne Duncan, the federal secretary of education, said he was less concerned about how targets are set and more focused on the end result. “The result that matters most is whether kids are learning and gaps are narrowing,” he said.
Amy Wilkins, the vice president for government affairs and communications for the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that advocates for low-income students, said taking a hard look at the data by race, ethnicity and other high-risk categories is crucial to helping students succeed.
“Because these are hard conversations to have, it doesn’t mean we can avoid them,” she said. “Unless we look at the fact that blacks and Latino kids are doing dreadfully and demand progress and demand that schools do better by them, we won’t solve the problem.”