MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, if you saw the movie "Lincoln," then you caught a glimpse of her, the former enslaved American, a talented seamstress who became one of Mrs. Lincoln's closest confidantes. Her name was Elizabeth Keckley and we want to tell you more about her in just a few minutes.
But first we want to talk about what has become one of the most intractable and explosive debates in education. We're talking about the so-called achievement gap; that refers to the fact that there has been a persistent gap in the average scores achieved by members of different racial and ethnic groups on standardized tests.
Now, these tests have become particularly important in recent years when much of education policy has been focused on getting all kids up to speed on core subjects. Now some states are trying to shrink that gap in a way that might surprise you. They want to set different standards for different ethnic groups.
Here to tell us more about this is Emily Richmond. She is the public editor of the Education Writers Association. She recently wrote a piece about this which was posted at TheAtlantic.com and she's with us now. Emily, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
EMILY RICHMOND: My pleasure.
MARTIN: Now, on the face of this, I think when people just first hear this, you can see the outrage forming because it sounds ridiculous. It sounds like exactly the kind of thing that decades of civil rights activism has been working against. So how did this idea come about; why do people think this is a good idea?
RICHMOND: Well, the way this came about was with an enormous frustration with No Child Left Behind, which was put in place in 2002. School districts across the country were given 12 years to reach what many consider to be an untenable goal - to have 100 percent of students, every child, reach proficiency in grade level in reading, writing and math by the 2013/14 academic year.
And I put that question to one of the key architects of No Child Left Behind, and that's Eugene Hickok, who was a deputy secretary of education under George W. Bush. And I said to him, when you were in the room setting out these goals, didn't anyone say, can we really do this? And his answer to me was pretty interesting.
He said, look, we didn't say we were going to get a man halfway to the moon and not know how to get him back. We didn't say we're going to get a man 70 percent of the way to the moon. If it's No Child Left Behind, then absolutely the goal has to be 100 percent. But schools have said it's impossible. It's frustrating. They have struggled for the past 10 years of the program to try to make progress.
The progress has been minute. And with the funding for the Education - Secondary Education Act held up in Congress, Education Secretary Arne Duncan stepped into the breach and said I'm going to start issuing waivers to states from some of the more onerous provisions of No Child Left Behind, if in exchange they will adopt certain reforms.
For example, doing a better job of monitoring how teachers perform in the classroom and also come up with accountability standards.
MARTIN: OK. So we understand that. People are saying this is a goal. It's a great idea but we simply can't get there. How did the idea of setting different benchmarks based on race or ethnicity come into play?
RICHMOND: The first group to really float the idea was the Education Trust, which is based here in Washington, D.C. And the entire mission of this organization is advocacy for children who have been overlooked and closing the achievement and opportunity gap for children of color and children from impoverished homes.
And they floated this idea and said what if instead of saying 100 percent we look at the students who are struggling the most and try to give them what they need to make a realistic degree of progress over a realistic period of time. And when Arne Duncan was coming up with the waiver idea he essentially appropriated that idea, included it into the choices that states could make in deciding how they wanted to be held to new accountability standards which would replace No Child Left Behind.
MARTIN: What is an example of setting a different standard, of how these new standards might work?
RICHMOND: For example, in the District of Columbia, by the end of the 2016/17 academic year, the goal for reading is that there be 70 percent proficiency for black students and that for white students it be 94 percent proficiency. So that's obviously a 24 percentage point difference. But black students are so far behind their white peers right now in D.C. that they're being asked to make a much greater rate of growth.
But I can say that a state that has enormous challenges, Nevada, has said we're not going to do it. We're not going to set different bars by ethnicity, even though you could argue that they have more challenges in that department than pretty much any other state in the country. One out of four kids in the Clark County school district, the fifth largest in the nation, is an English-language learner.
They have huge turnover among their teacher and staff and economic challenges as a result of the recession. But they've said we want 100 percent of our students to achieve. We're not going to change the bar for race or ethnic groups. So it is possible for a state not to do it.
MARTIN: You can understand why they don't want to wrap an entire school system, or even a school, for that matter, in the cloak of lack of success, ongoing lack of success, to continually label systems and schools as failures. On the other hand, you can easily see why critics are saying this is lowering the bar, particularly for black and Latino students.
Just by way of example, in Florida, for example, from your piece, 90 percent of Asian students, 88 percent of white students, 81 percent of Hispanic students, and 74 percent of black students will be expected to demonstrate proficiency on the state's reading assessments by 2018. Why wouldn't a reasonable person look at that and say you just have lower expectations for black and Hispanic students no matter who they are, that race is just too blunt of an instrument here.
RICHMOND: It's a great question. But then you have to go below the surface and not just look at where the bar is, but look at the rate, the rate by which students are expected to improve over the next six years. In Florida, the rate for white students is 19 percentage points. For Hispanics it's 28 percentage points. And black students must improve by 36 percentage points by the end of the 2017 school year.
That's enormous. You're asking that the groups who are disadvantaged and the furthest behind to show the greatest rate or percentage of growth. But this is a tough sell. I completely understand why people are frustrated by this. And it's incredibly difficult to say that it's OK in any way for a public school to say we don't expect 100 percent from every one of our children.
MARTIN: What about this long-standing research that, you know, people get in Sociology 101 that says that kids really do meet the expectations that are set for them? I mean these are famous studies that I'm sure they're taught in, like, the beginning education courses where people say that, you know, if you have high expectations, kids will meet them. Conversely, if you have low expectations, kids will meet those.
Aren't educators worried that this will codify the sense that black and Latino students cannot achieve at the same level?
RICHMOND: This is absolutely a point of view and it's one that I got from Carla O'Connor, who is at the University of Michigan. And her concern is by laying it out on paper like this you are saying it's OK to say Asian students are in the front of the room, black kids can go to the back of the room, and isn't that a huge step back?
And I can understand that kind of argument. And you're right, the research does show one of the single biggest predictors of a student's academic success is the educational attainment level of their parents. After that, another huge indicator is the rigor of their high school curriculum, whether or not that kid's going to go on to college, whether they go into post-secondary success.
So you're right. The higher the bar you set, kids rise to that occasion. So the question is, what are we doing now - what are schools and states doing now that this bar has been changed? Are there going to be efforts to direct minority students into more challenging programs to raise their achievement to meet this gap?
Or are people going to let them slide or give them a pass? Because they know that on their own assessments, their own evaluations, their own school rankings, those kids are not going to be counted with the same weight.
MARTIN: Well, hopefully you'll keep us posted on that.
RICHMOND: I hope to. Thank you.
MARTIN: Emily Richmond is the public editor of the Education Writers Association. She posted a piece about this at TheAtlantic.com and she was kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington D.C. to tell us about it. Emily Richmond, thank you for joining us.
RICHMOND: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.