Soft Bigotry and No Child Left Behind Waivers

Regardless of one’s political loyalties, most Americans support education reform in one format or another.  Given this notion, it’s no surprise that when the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was enacted, it served as a glimmering bipartisan beacon of hope and domestic achievement. [1]  Under No Child Left Behind, President Bush sought to silence the “soft bigotry” of low educational expectations for minority students.  [2]  To effectuate this noble goal, the legislation called for a test-based system of accountability, in which states set standards for student proficiency in reading and math. [3]  Ultimately, under the legislation’s directives, states were required to implement annual testing in reading and math for students in grades 3-8 by the year 2005-2006. [4]  By the year 2007-2008, states also had to test students in science at least once during the elementary, middle, and high school levels. [5]

The new law further required fourth graders and eighth graders in every state to participate in the National Assessment of Education Progress, a yearly testing program designed to analyze reading and math levels and provide a “point of comparison” for states to gauge their progress. [6]  Such tests isolated the results of certain student subgroups like minorities, disabled, and Non-English speaking groups which enabled schools to monitor progress levels more closely. [7] In the event a school failed to meet adequate yearly progress targets, whether as a whole or among certain subgroups, certain sanctions were imposed. [8]  These sanctions ranged from requiring supplemental educational assistance to outside corrective measures like state takeovers and the closing of individual schools. [9]

The numerous impositions set in motion by the No Child Left Behind Act were all geared towards achieving one lofty goal:  to make all students completely proficient in reading and math by 2014.  But despite the law’s good intentions, it fell under rampant scrutiny as certain pitfalls began to emerge.  Critics and supporters alike became increasingly concerned that the law’s requirement of evaluating annual yearly progress by student demographics would disproportionately castigate schools with more diverse student bodies. [10]  Others worried that the legislation’s adamant emphasis on yearly standardized testing would convert many public schools into test prep regimes, ignoring the needs of individual students and devaluing numerous non-tested subjects. [11]  As more and more schools failed to reach their yearly progress targets, the goal of 100% proficiency by 2014 seemed to slip further out of reach, and by 2009, test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress illustrated that student progress increased at faster rates in the years before the Act’s inception. [12]

As the 2014 proficiency goal date inched closer, the idealism that formerly illuminated the Act’s passage had begun to dismantle, and by 2010 38% of schools were not meeting adequate yearly progress targets. [13]  Pressure from the U.S. Secretary of Education prompted the Obama administration to devise an ambitious agenda to refocus federal resources on a limited population of extremely at-risk schools. [14]  Unfortunately, Congress continually stalled, unable to agree on the exact parameters that would shape reformative legislation. [15]  In response, President Obama granted states the option of electing waivers to design their own accountability systems and bypass the 2014 proficiency deadline. [16]  The waivers granted states increased flexibility to change their academic goals.  Consequently, a large majority of the states receiving federal waivers set different accountability standards for different subgroups of students. [17]  Thus far, thirty four states have received waivers from the federal government. [18] Of these states, only eight have set the same proficiency target for all subgroups of students. [19] The twenty-six other states that received waivers set goals that measure different achievement benchmarks on the basis of a student’s race. [20]

The most controversial example of race-based benchmarks was created by the Florida State Board of Education.  Florida’s plan set academic performance goals on a curve with achievement targets related to race and income. [21]  In Florida, 74% of Black students and 81% of Hispanic students are expected to be reading at grade level by the year 2018. [22]  This is markedly lower than the percentages for white students (90%) and Asian students (90%). [23] Perhaps unsurprisingly, these varying benchmarks provoked a torrent of biting criticisms.  Those in opposition to the race correlated achievement standards pinpoint a cruel irony: the Act that was supposed to remedy unequal opportunities by bringing all children to the same level of learning, has instead encouraged an institutionalization of educational inequity. [24]  By setting achievement goals based on the color of a student’s skin, states suggest that race somehow influences one’s ability to learn, a view that America should have long-ago abandoned. [25] Furthermore, critics argue that by establishing lower achievement goals for minority students, states send the misguided message that minority students are not as capable. [26]  This has the concomitant effect of solidifying the “soft bigotry of low expectations” the Act intended to eradicate. [27]

While these criticisms carry definite merit, many individuals have come to the defense of Florida’s race-based achievement standards, arguing that they allow for more realistic goals given the current progress rates among subgroups.  Currently in Florida, 38% of Black students are reading at grade level; with Hispanics at 53%, and whites at 69%.  [28].  Based on these different levels of placement, Florida set different achievement standards as part of an intentional strategy to mend the achievement gaps among racial lines. [29]  In order for Black students to reach the 74% proficiency rate set for 2018, they will have to almost double their current proficiency rate of 38%, whereas Florida’s white students must increase their proficiency rate by 19%.  [30].  If these goals are reached, Florida will effectively shrink the achievement gap between black and white students from 31% to 14% in a period of five years. [31]  A spokesperson for the Education Trust explained in a letter to the editor of a Florida newspaper that while the different goals for different racial groups “may feel ‘just plain wrong’ . . .it’s absolutely the right thing to do . . .to close the achievement gap [by] demand[ing] more and faster progress for students of color.” [32]  In the same vein, Florida’s State Representative Dwight Bullard explained that the “separate but equal” achievement goals are aimed at closing the “opportunity gap” between different groups of students. [33]

Only time will tell whether Florida will meet its goal of 100% proficiency rates among all groups of students by 2023.  However, one thing is clear: while the different educational achievement goals in Florida and other states are troubling, the current racially disparate proficiency levels are even more troubling.  By setting different achievement goals for different subgroups of students, Florida is ultimately recognizing these existing disparities, and seeking to amend them by creating more aggressive progress growth rates for certain groups of students.  Ideally, this will direct teachers to focus increased energy on those students who are more at-risk, and close the achievement gap once and for all.




[2] Id.

[3] Id.


[5] Id.


[7] Id.


[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] 10


[13] Id.








[21] academic.html


[23] Id.



[26] Id.


[28] academic.html

[29] Id.


[31] Id.


[33] academic.html






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