Different academic goals for different races? Alabama plan takes flak.

Alabama's new education plan aims for parity in academic achievement among students of all races. But it is causing a stir because it also sets interim goals in which some subgroups perform at a lower level on proficiency tests.

Alabama’s newly approved education plan, which will replace No Child Left Behind in the state, is under fire for setting different goals for students in math and reading tests based in part on the students' race and economic status, in an attempt to close achievement gaps.

Alabama’s Plan 2020, approved in June by the US Department of Education, follows the Bush-era precedent to divide students by subgroups on the basis of race or ethnicity to assess achievement, but goes further in setting different goals for the groups, the Tuscaloosa News first reported Sunday.

For instance, while 95 percent of third-graders, regardless of subgroup, need to pass math in 2013 under No Child Left Behind, the Alabama plan expects 91.5 percent of white students and 79 percent of black students to pass math tests in 2013.

“Isn't this discrimination? Doesn't this imply that some students are not as smart as others depending on their genetic and economic backgrounds?" asked Elois Zeanah, president of the Alabama Federation of Republican Women, in a written statement. 

The state has the highest math goals for Asian/Pacific Islander students, expecting 93.6 percent will pass the test this year, and lower goals for Hispanic students and students in poverty. 

The goals aren’t supposed to stay stagnant. Instead, Plan 2020 requires that students in lower-performing subgroups improve the most until rates reach relative parity in 2018.

“We're not just grabbing the numbers out of the air,” Shanthia Washington, education administrator for the Alabama Department of Education, told the Tuscaloosa News. “This is real-life, true data. These are your goals every year. The goal is to reduce the students who aren't proficient over the period of the next six years.” 

Some critics are concerned the state’s approach to closing the achievement gap will help to entrench gaps instead.

“You know what this will do. Teachers will stop teaching those kids with the lower cut scores. They will, out of necessity, teach to the top cut scores,” said Sharon Sewell, director of Alabamians United for Excellence in Education, in a statement.

The US Department of Education granted Alabama a waiver from No Child Left behind on June 21 and approved Plan 2020 as its replacement.

“The waiver [from No Child Left Behind] is just one part of the overall Plan 2020 approach,” said Tommy Bice, Alabama superintendent of education, at the time. “Ultimately, what will result is a system that uses the college and career readiness of its graduates as its capstone measure of success.”

Melinda Maddox, assistant superintendent for research, information, and data services for the Alabama Department of Education, "said assessments under Plan 2020 will better identify weaknesses in education progress than No Child Left Behind's Adequate Yearly Progress measure,” wrote the Birmingham News in June.

"We are focused on closing achievement gaps, increasing graduation rates, moving students to proficiency and making sure our graduates are prepared for college and/or a career without remediation," Ms. Maddox said, according the Birmingham newspaper. 

Tuscaloosa board of education member Marvin Lucas told the Tuscaloosa News he believes Plan 2020's accountability standards are unfair.

“If I give a lower expectation for any child, that's not pushing that kid to his highest potential,” Mr. Lucas said. “All kids, no matter what their race is, can achieve if you push them and give them real ways to make it."

The US Department of Education has now approved requests for waivers from No Child Left Behind requirements from 36 states and the District of Columbia. 

States have been able to apply for waivers since September 2011, when the Obama administration announced it would consider waivers because Congress had not reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

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