Wednesday, November 14, 2012

When Numbers Betray Reality

Target pass rate of 82% for Asians. Target pass rate of 68% for whites.  52% for Latinos and 45% for blacks.  Those are the new performance goals for math in the state of Virginia and it's good enough for a waiver freeing us from the untenable mandates of No Child Left Behind.

No matter how reasonable the explanation sounds, the result-- 82% pass rate target for Asians, 45% pass rate target for blacks-- is absolutely unreasonable.  My psychology class is in the middle of a unit on Testing and Intelligence and we looked at group differences in I.Q. scores last class.  We discussed the 1994 book The Bell Curve and how sometimes inferences about race and ability based on testing results are seriously flawed.  A diagram from the book shows overlapping normal curves of I.Q. scores between Asians, whites, hispanics, and blacks from right to left on the curve.

I was shocked to hear news of the new Virginia targets that evening after viewing this diagram in class.  NPR's All Things Considered ran the story titled "Firestorm Erupts Over Virginia's Education Goals." The story stood out to me after hearing the percentage target rates that matched the order of I.Q. scores presented in the diagram.

We listened to the audio in class. I didn't anticipate how awkward the transition would be. "We've just listened to people talking about Asians and whites and latinos and blacks, but when you look to your left and look to your right you see people with names, your friends. And I can't look at any of you and say that I expect any less of you because of who you are."

Is it reasonable for an entire state to articulate that our expectations of performance are different depending on your race?

For over a decade now, schools, divisions, and entire states have struggled to prove their merit based on the primary metric of the standardized test. Percentages, percentiles, and pass rates have surpassed the noble goals of civic responsibility, critical thinking, responsibility, and achievement.  Never mind that some schools don't even have high enough numbers of "sub-groups" to qualify in that reporting category, we've found a way to numerically rate and therefore compare quality from one location to the next.

When schools started meeting the required pass rates of state testing, No Child Left Behind came along and labelled them as failing because not every reporting category met the benchmark pass rate.  It essentially created an all-or-nothing system.  Success didn't matter unless it was complete success.  Any partial failure became the character of the entire school.

Expectations of perfection looming in the next few years prompted the offer of waivers for NCLB. The education world has always promoted an "every child can succeed" attitude. You can't  achieve excellence in this field without that attitude. But most teachers learn within the first year of teaching that just believing that every child can succeed doesn't make every child succeed.

We hear that new state pass rates are set with the understanding that these racial groups aren't starting at the same place.  So we want to look for growth.  We hear that what's important isn't where we finish, it's how much improvement we've accomplished.

Either way, we're left with numbers. 82, 68, 52, and 45, and they define success depending on your race.

If that doesn't wake you up to the damage that our reliance on test based accountability has done to education and American society I'm not sure what will.  Welcome back to 1954 Ms. Brown.


  1. So Alexandria($89,000) white kid are the same as Coeburn white kids where the median family household income is $28,000 but not the same as Black or Asian kids from the same place? With all the unintended damage from NCLB, will this be better? Not likely. Race isn't a factor in the state's composite index formula nor should it be in testing goals. Fact- an achievement gap exists. Simply saying it will be eliminated or ignoring that reality serves no one. What is less clear is how to work to improve efforts for all children. I dare say this is not an approach worth trying. How about something that works like funding a genuine statewide Pre-K effort and actually simply letting teachers teach instead of anything remotely connected to testing?

  2. How fantastic that, when dropping by to check out this post, I see a Wise County reference. I teach in the town of Big Stone Gap, right here in Wise County, and the idea that my students, because they are white, share an educational experience - or starting point - as white students in other parts of the state is just ludicrous. A better place to begin would be socioeconomic status.