- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A number of states struggling with vast racial achievement gaps in schools may have found a way around the problem: Lump blacks and Hispanics with handicapped and poor children.

Nine of the 11 states seeking federal waivers from the No Child Left Behind law have proposed revised accountability systems, designed to track how an all-encompassing group of “disadvantaged students” stacks up against the student population as a whole, according to a new study from the Center on Education Policy, a D.C.-based education think tank.

The states — Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Tennessee — would still track racial achievement gaps on an annual basis, but that information would no longer be used for the same accountability purposes. Under current federal law, schools can be labeled failing if they fail to make progress in closing the gulf between white and black students, for example.

Compared to NCLB, the waiver proposals place far less importance on the gaps between two specific groups of students. Instead, the disadvantaged category — dubbed a “supergroup” by some education specialists — would be compared to the overall student population, and the plans call for schools to make progress each year in closing that disparity.

Critics of the proposals, the details of which differ from state to state, charge that states would take a giant step backward in their efforts to help the worst-performing students by implementing the new systems, and schools with the widest racial achievement gaps could simply mask their problems.

NCLB assigns “priority” status to schools which make little or no progress on closing achievement gaps. Under the revised accountability plans, Hispanic students, for example, could make major gains and help shrink the gap between the supergroup and the general student population, but black or disabled students could make little or no progress.

“Schools could get out of the priority status by improving some of those groups, but not all of them,” said Amy Wilkins, vice president for government affairs at the Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group.

The accountability provisions could be a sticking point with the Education Department, which may reject the plans and send them back to the states for revision. The department is expected to rule on the proposals next month.

States are defending their plans as being the most realistic ways to address racial disparities, and several Wednesday stressed that they’ll continue to keep an eye on how each individual group is performing.

“We’re calling the group our “high-needs students. It’s a systematic way for us to capture the students that need the most help academically without any bias to subgroups,” said Dennis Kramer, federal policy and research analyst with the Georgia Department of Education. “We do not want to assume that every student who is African-American is a disadvantaged student. We also have a number of low-achieving white students.”

Mr. Kramer said his state realizes that the plan, on its surface, could seem disturbing, and officials have made an effort to quell concerns.

“We’ve made a very conscious effort to reach out to the NAACP in Georgia, and a lot of other advocacy groups, to look at how this might be perceived,” Mr. Kramer said. “All of those groups have signed off on our waiver.”

In Colorado, education leaders are combining racial groups into a broader category because some schools simply don’t have enough black or Hispanic students, for example, to form an accurate picture.

Colorado is also establishing a “below proficient” designation, which can include students of any race.

“It’s a color-blind way of understanding performance,” said Bill Bonk, longitudinal growth consultant with the state Department of Education.

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