So, this school board in Florida is moving forward with a plan that links reading and math test goals to race and ethnicity and some people are declaring this racist.
But, is it?
This school board’s officials say they looked at the disparity between how the various groups – Asians, who are doing best in both categories, whites, Hispanics and African-Americans, who generally perform least well across the board – are doing on these tests, and adjusted the goals accordingly.
The mandate stipulates that by 2018, 90 percent of Asian students, 88 percent of white students, 81 percent of Hispanic students and 74 percent of black students must be reading at or above grade level. The state also wants 92 percent of Asians, 86 percent of whites, 80 percent of Hispanics and 74 percent of blacks to be at or above their math grade level by then.
Some suggest these officials are “dumbing down” the standards based on race while proponents say they’re trying to level the playing field. I tend to lean toward the latter.
These numbers are not being pulled out of thin air, suggesting, for instance, that only 74 percent of African American students should need to reach proficiency in math compared to 92 percent of Asians, because they like Asians better or they think Asians are smarter. The goal numbers are based on where the group is performing now.
If the ultimate goal is to have 100 percent of students proficient in reading and math, Asians would only have to improve by 10 percent or 8 percent, respectively, to reach that goal. Blacks, on the other hand, have much further to go to get there, pretty much guaranteeing ongoing relative failure.
No one, I believe, is arguing the current proficiency numbers are false or racist, though there are some who suggest the tests upon which these figures are based may be skewed toward “white culture.” The problem with that argument is that Asians, even new immigrants, consistently do better on them than anyone else.
Besides race, the new achievement standards in Florida also set goals for disabled students, English learners and those from low-income households.
I’m not sure this Florida school district’s approach is the best one, but what we have done so far is clearly not working to close the so-called performance gap. The question we need to address, head on, is why various ethnic groups generally perform differently on these standardized tests. Until we answer that question, we will never be able to solve the problem, if the problem is getting the vast majority of each group to score well.
And, so far, I think, we have been afraid to look the issue in the eye for fear of what we’ll find.
First, we need to decide if what we’re measuring with these tests means anything.
Are we trying to fatten a pig by weighing it? Are we measuring the quality of teachers, or curriculum? Are we finding disparities in home culture that impact basic learning habits?
If we agree that every ethnic group contains a certain percentage of individuals who lack the capacity to absorb information past a certain point, we need to decide if we try to figure out a better way to teach those individuals or accept this and move on. I think we need to entertain the possibility that intelligence, like eye color and height, is inherited. I’m not sure why this is considered a bad thing, but if it’s true, if nature plays a bigger role in this than nurture, we need to accept it and adjust our approach to education accordingly, and not by ethnicity, but by individual potential.
And while one’s intelligence level provides an indicator of potential, it does not guarantee it, since upbringing, character, environment, personality and other issues also factor in.
I realize the fear attached to facing academic achievement disparities based on ethnicity is the potential for exploiting it for some form of Hitlerian eugenics, but, we’re already breaking down test scores by ethnicity, so that danger already exists. The danger in not seeking the actual origin of the disparity is never solving it, which means a large percentage of certain minority groups never reaching their potential in life.
That approach may end up being much more racist than trying to find the teaching methods that work best for the various ethnicities or individuals. Or, we could try and impact the main source of the disparity – the family – or scrap the standardized tests as an exercise in futility and let individuals perform to their own limits.
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