Is The New A-F Report Card Racist? Some Think So

May 18, 2017

Educators have criticized Oklahoma’s A Through F Report Card for years saying the way it grades schools is unfair. The State Department of Education finally overhauled it, but some groups call the new plan racist, and they’re threatening to sue the Department of Education if parts of the new Report Card aren’t changed.

A school’s grade is based on a couple different things. One of which is whether students are meeting certain academic targets.

Under the newly-revised A through F Report Card black students will have lower academic targets than white students, at least for the first few years.

A group of lawmakers recently called this part of the plan discriminatory, and so did Robert Ruiz who’s planning to sue the State Department of Education if it doesn’t change.  

“We just feel strongly, and obviously a lot of people agree, and the lawyers agree, that this is a discriminatory policy,” Ruiz said.

Ruiz is the president of Scissortail, a community development organization on the south side of Oklahoma City and he regularly fights for education reforms that support low income, and minority students.

Overall, Ruiz likes the new A through F, but not the part where different students have different academic expectations based on their race.

“I just think it’s very damaging when you start grouping people by race and making assumptions about how they’re going to perform because they’re in these groups,” Ruiz said. “We just don’t think it’s right.”

Ruiz has another problem with this part of the new plan: Schools meeting lower targets for minority students will get just as much credit on their report card as schools meeting higher targets for white students.

He said this will make low-performing schools look like they’re doing well, when they might not be.

“Because as long as they’re meeting a certain goal, they’re going to look like they’re doing fine with African American kids even though the African American kids might be at 50 to 60 percent proficiency,” he said.

For decades, black and Hispanic students, on average, have performed worse academically than their white peers. And despite federal education laws like No Child Left Behind, this disparity remains.

Marianne Perie, the researcher from the University of Kansas who’s in charge of reshaping the state’s A-F Report card said one of the goals of the A Through F system is to close this gap, but to do so the state has to be realistic about where kids are starting out.

“So, because of that, we are saying that black students will start out by having lower targets than white students,” she said. “So, right there is where the initial accusation of racism comes in.”

Perie emphasized that the end goal is the same as it’s always been. And that’s for all students to reach proficiency and pass the state tests. But she said, asking all schools to get there at the same time is unreasonable because they’re starting out in different places.

“What we learned from No Child Left Behind is that when you take a school that’s 10 percent proficient and you tell them they have to be 70 percent proficient by next year, we’ve lost them from the get go,” she said.

So, the new plan takes a stair-step approach and gives schools intermediate targets to meet. Again, the academic targets for minority students will initially be lower, but they’ll be expected to grow each year—as will white students—until hopefully the two groups are on the same level.

In order to close that gap, minority students will be expected to grow more than a year’s worth- in a year.

“So, am I racist because I have a lower score for black students and it’s going to take them a longer time to get to proficient?,” Perie asked. “Or am I really pushing them because they have to improve at a faster rate than white students?”

One supporter of the new plan is Tracy McDaniel, the principal at KIPP Charter School in Oklahoma City. He said he finds it unacceptable for kids to be behind in the first place.  

“But what I do find acceptable is, you have to meet a kid where they are,” he said.  

McDaniel said kids regularly come to KIPP two and three grade levels behind, but his teachers use a system of intermediate academic targets to catch them up, just like the state is proposing to do.

Furthermore, McDaniel said schools should get full credit for hitting these intermediate targets. He said lifting kids up from the bottom requires a lot of work on the teacher’s part. Possibly more work than educating kids who are already doing well.

“It’s not the teacher’s fault that the kid is coming to their classroom three grade levels below,” he said.

Robert Ruiz said he's heard all the explanations loud and clear, but he still doesn’t like the fact that kids’ expectations will be based on their race.

“… you’re continuing that false narrative that … Hispanic kids or black kids are somehow deficient or broken,” he said.

He proposes using other data to predict how well kids will do, like whether students are coming from single parent homes, which he thinks is a better indicator.

The governor has already signed the new A though F in to law but the state Department of Education could still make changes to it.

If they don’t take out the parts Ruiz thinks are discriminatory, he plans to sue, and he’s confident he’ll win.