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Waiver Watch: Yes, Virginia, There Is an Achievement Gap

Published:  September 6, 2012
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Flickr photo by madam3181

Reporters, bloggers, eduwonks, public officials, and civil rights leaders have been weighing in on Virginia’s separate – and very unequal – achievement goals for student subgroups in their ESEA waiver request in droves. And many rightfully cheered the U.S. Department of Education’s announcement last week that Virginia would be revising its achievement targets by month’s end to make them more ambitious for disadvantaged students. The tremendous coverage of Virginia’s AMO (annual measurable objective) debacle undoubtedly encouraged the Department to take action. But unfortunately, they got part of the story wrong – a part that should be highlighted before Virginia goes back to the drawing board.

Virginia’s AMOs failed to close achievement gaps not because the state adopted new, more difficult math tests or because the state set different goals for certain student groups. Virginia’s AMOs failed to close achievement gaps because their waiver completely ignored them.*

Only in Virginia.** Their one-of-a-kind AMO methodology focused on a different sort of gap: the gap between schools where black students perform well and schools where black students perform poorly. And the gap between schools where white students perform well and white students perform poorly. Just not the gap between schools where white students perform well and black students perform poorly.*** You know, the achievement gap educators have been trying to close for decades. By focusing on differences in performance within, rather than between, student subgroups, Virginia officials put their blinders on to real disparities in performance, even in high performing school systems like Fairfax County.

Transforming schools where particular subgroups perform below average is a worthwhile endeavor. A school where 40 percent of Hispanic students are proficient in math and reading could surely learn from a school where 60 percent of Hispanic students are proficient. But shouldn’t those schools also aim for Hispanic students to perform as well as all students? The problem in Virginia isn’t just that some schools do a poor job educating minority and disadvantaged kids relative to others, but that minority and disadvantaged kids lag behind other students across the board. It’s like applauding McDonald’s for making healthier happy meals. While an improvement, it doesn’t mean kids should eat one every day. After all, it’s still a cheeseburger and fries, with a few apple slices on the side.

In the end, Virginia could still choose to set different AMOs for different subgroups, as many other states elected to do in their waivers. But Virginia cannot continue setting goals for subgroups blindly, based on double standards. Sure, goals for black students can be informed by how well they currently perform on state assessments. But goals must also be informed by how well all students should be performing. Maybe that means each subgroup makes progress toward 100 percent proficiency or the 90th percentile overall, with lower-performing students asked to make larger annual gains. Maybe that means expecting at least one year of academic growth from students, with those further behind expected to demonstrate greater growth. Maybe it’s something else entirely. But at the end of six years, Virginia officials shouldn’t be satisfied with mile-wide, persistent achievement gaps.

This week, Fordham’s Mike Petrilli asked: “Why is it so ‘stunning’ that Virginia wouldn’t expect the achievement gap to evaporate in just five years?” He’s right; it isn’t. What is stunning is that Virginia was able to get a waiver by ignoring achievement gaps entirely. Let’s not make the same mistake twice.

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*A fact not lost on the peer reviewers charged with reading Virginia’s waiver request: “VDOE’s request does not include recognition of its current challenge of achievement gaps.”

**See: massive resistance to school integration, charter schools, Race to the Top, Common Core, and Ken Cuccinelli.

***For the truly nerdy, here’s the methodology Virginia used to set its AMOs (in this case, for black students in math):

1) rank all Virginia schools based on the percentage of black students proficient on state math tests

2) identify the point on the list where 20 percent of enrolled students attended a school with a lower rate of math proficiency for black students (School A)

3) identify the point on the list where 10 percent of enrolled students attended a school with a higher rate of math proficiency for black students (School B)

4) determine the math proficiency rate for black students at school A and school B – these proficiency rates are NOT equal to the 20th and 90th percentile for black students’ performance, as schools A and B are identified by both school enrollment and subgroup performance.

5) subtract proficiency A from proficiency B and divide in 2 (to cut in half the gap between the performance of black students at the two schools)

6) divide this amount by 6 to get the annual AMO increase for black students (to complete the 50 percent gap reduction between the two schools in six years)

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