Nightly News   |  March 06, 2013

Race-based academic targets raise eyebrows

As states have sought waivers from the 100 percent proficiency requirement of No Child Left Behind, new performance targets were put in place that led to differing expectations for children depending on their race. NBC’s Rehema Ellis reports.

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>>> in the world of education, it's called the achievement the gap, the disparity in the academic performance of kids and groups defined by income and race or ethnicity. there have been a lot of efforts to make things right. and even things up. including schools that are chasing a federal standard for all students. in ways that might even surprise some parents. our report tonight from our chief education correspondent, rehema ellis.

>> reporter: dialo hopes to be an explorer.

>> jungles.

>> reporter: kari, perhaps a scientist.

>> biologist.

>> reporter: two 9-year-olds with big dreams in fourth grade classrooms feet apart, seen differently in the eyes of the state because of the color of their skin. that's because black and hispanic students have been trailing white students on standardized tests for years. to close that achievement gap , congress passed the sweeping no child left behind act in 2001 . mandating every student test at grade level by 2014 , or schools risk being shut down.

>> 100% of our students in 100% of our schools had to be proficient in mathematics and reading. under that criteria, by the end of the school year, all of our schools would have been labeled as failing.

>> reporter: so, be many applied for waivers.

>> we worked on it for six months.

>> reporter: allowing states to keep federal funding if they meet certain benchmarks. of the 35 granted, the majority include different academic targets for different races. in washington, d.c. , for example, 71% of black, and 77% of hispanic students need to be proficient in math by 2017 , compared to 94% of white students.

>> the intention in closing the achievement gap is the right one. we want to see that gap close. but lowering expectations for students of color is not the answer. and sends the wrong message.

>> reporter: some parents who find the targets troublesome say they understand the reasoning behind them.

>> i can say different standards but hopefully what it is is looking at people what they are, bringing them up to the same standard.

>> reporter: dialo woods and his sisters attend d.c. public schools while their parents support efforts to close the achievement gap , nicole, also a teacher, find the targets unsettling.

>> i'm not saying to myself, listen, this is what the white kids can do and this is what you can do. i would never do that to my children. so to hold them to a bar that says you're only going to make it this far, that's discriminato discriminatory.

>> reporter: the superintendent of d.c. schools says that's not the case.

>> the target for everyone is the same. which is a 50% increase in proficiency.

>> reporter: some educators believe race-based targets focus attention on the uncomfortable reality that for generations, education hasn't always been equal for kids of different races. they say these targets help get resources to those who need them most.

>> regardless of race, income, or socio economic status.

>> reporter: don't leave those children out.

>> exactly.

>> reporter: educate ors, though, warn against mistaking short-term goals for long-term expectations.

>> we expect 100% from all of our kids so that is a goal we hold and ask our staff to hold, too.

>> reporter: to reach that goal, schools are providing extra support, including after-school tutoring.

>> the more i practice it, the better i get.

>> reporter: and it's one step toward helping all children achieve their full potential. educators we spoke with say these race-based targets are necessary for now, and they are, perhaps, an imperfect approach to fixing a problem that has been decades in the making, brian.

>> what an interesting and important story. rehema, thank you, as