In a move that drew applause from educational policy analysts but sparked outrage among Latinos across Florida, the state's Board of Education decided last week that goals for student progress will now vary depending upon the student’s race.

By 2018, the Board announced, it expects 90 percent of Asian students, 88 percent of white students, 81 percent of Hispanic students, and 74 percent of black students to be reading at grade level.

In math, 92 percent of Asian students, 86 percent of white students, 80 percent of Hispanic students and 74 percent of black students are expected to be scoring at grade level.

“I am very concerned about having different achievement expectations for different students,” said state senator Anitere Flores, a Republican from Miami. “I strongly believe that every student is capable of learning at the highest level and should be encouraged to do so regardless of race.”

But at the federal level, officials say it's not the end goal that's different but the rate at which students get there.

“What Florida is being permitted to do is to say 'let’s take a look not at where we want to be but let’s take an honest look at where students are starting out from,'” said Daren Briscoe, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education.

The 'No Child Left Behind' law had an ambitious –and some analysts say unrealistic– goal to have every student proficient by 2014. As the deadline neared and as states could not achieve that standard, more and more have asked for waivers to be exempted from the federal guidelines and to have control over their own progress. To get a waiver states must present plans that the government can approve, which include academic growth for all students. Florida’s plan, along with ones from Virginia and Washington D.C., came under fire for having different short-term goals for different races.

State officials said that their 2018 proficiency goals are not the long-term standard they are aiming for.  

“The interim targets will not determine our success; the absence of an achievement gap will,” said Gary Chartrand, Florida's Board of Education chairman, in a statement. State officials also pointed out that in the years that there was an aim for all students to be proficient, between 2001 and 2010, the black and white achievement gap only narrowed by 5 percentage points.

Some analysts back up the state saying that despite what it might look like, the six-year strategic plan is actually pushing underachieving students to work harder. For example, the proportion of Latino students meeting reading standards would jump from 53 percent today to 81 percent in 2018, according to the Education Trust, a research and advocacy group that works with National Council of La Raza.

“That’s certainly not where we want and need to be by any means; but it is leaps and bounds ahead of current growth trajectories,” said Amy Wilkins, Vice President of the Education Trust in a statement. “To meet these goals for Latino and African-American students, schools will have to finally and quite deliberately focus more attention and resources on them.”

But opponents, particularly those overseeing the day-to-day running of schools, charge that these new standards are just another set of goals that may not be reached given the educational climate in Florida. The racial issues tied with them, they say, may wind up having unintended and severe consequences.

Florida is one of many states in the U.S. to have adopted a common curriculum that is supposed to be more challenging than what has been offered before. That curriculum will come with a new national assessment and it is unclear how students will perform on the test, given its expected difficulty.

“We’re navigating uncharted waters,” said Raquel Regalado, Miami-Dade County School Board member. “I don’t see the purpose of [setting these state goals] at this point in time. This is just divisive and confusing.”

Regalado said that she had concerns over whether defining subgroups by race would limit the scope of improvements and leave out other students who may need extra help and which the state should be paying more attention to, including students learning English and those with special needs.

Others echo her sentiments, questioning the timing of these new markers and decrying the addition of racial labels.

"While these targets comply with the federal waiver requirements,” Alberto M. Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools said in an emailed statement, “the optics of establishing targets by race and other subgroups defies the universal and undisputed fact that all students can perform academically."

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Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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