Setting Academic Goals By Race: A Very Bad Idea

Should the public education system set different goals for students according to their race? The Virginia state board of education has created a controversial new set of education goals that are higher for white and Asian kids than for blacks, Latinos and students with disabilities, reports Claudio Sanchez of NPR:

“The Virginia state board of education looked at students’ test scores in reading and math and then proposed new passing rates. In math it set an acceptable passing rate at 82 percent for Asian students, 68 percent for whites, 52 percent for Latinos, 45 percent for blacks and 33 percent for kids with disabilities . . .

At a meeting of the state board of education in late September, Patricia Wright, Virginia’s superintendent of public instruction, defended the new policy.

‘Rest assured, all of us hold all students to the same academic standards, but when it comes to measuring progress, we have to consider that students start at different points,’ Wright said.

In a phone interview with NPR, Wright explained that Virginia’s expectation is that all students, regardless of race or ethnicity, will correctly answer the same number of questions to pass the state tests.

But the reality is that black and Latino children generally don’t do as well as white and Asian children, and that gap, says Wright, is what the new policy is meant to address by setting more modest goals for struggling minority children and giving them more time to catch up.

‘The concept here is that if indeed within six years we can close the achievement gap between the lowest- and highest-performing schools — at least cut it in half — that would be acceptable progress,’ says Wright.” (Read more here.)

I can imagine any number of objections to this plan, but from a social psychology point of view, it’s an absolutely terrible idea to institutionalize lower standards for minority groups in this way. Anyone familiar with the research literature on the phenomenon known as “stereotype threat” would be aware that telling African-American and Latino children that, in effect, they are not expected to do well on a test is a sure way to activate a sense of psychological threat—a threat that will then use up many of the mental resources they need to do well on the test, and thus lead in all likelihood to even lower scores. (For more about stereotype threat, read my recent New York Times article on the subject, here.)

Of course we need to honestly recognize and address the achievement gap that separates the performance of many black and Latino students from that of their white and Asian peers, but why set academic goals by race? Why not say, “We expect every student currently scoring below grade level to improve his or her test score by 20 percent [or whatever] by next year?”

I hope the controversy that is greeting these standards will lead the Virginia state board of education to reconsider this ill-advised policy.

One Response to “Setting Academic Goals By Race: A Very Bad Idea”

  1. Bob says:

    Wicherts recently presented a presentation at ISIR that claimed that ST was largely the result of publication bias.

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