RICHMOND - New math testing rates set by Virginia education officials are under fire by members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus and the president of the Norfolk Federation of Teachers, Thomas Calhoun.

They want the state Board of Education to reconsider the rates broken down along racial lines. When they were introduced earlier this year, opponents called the rates narrow minded. The Board revisited the plan, designed to help close the achievement gap between minority and non-minority students. Some of changes are controversial.

'When you start with a bad idea, it's really difficult to turn it into a good one,' says Calhoun.

The math target rates are called Annual Measurable Objectives (AMOs) and were created after the state applied for a flexibility waiver from the U.S. Department of Education's No Child Left Behind law. That law requires 100 percent of students pass a more rigorous math SOL test by 2014.

Virginia education officials came up with what they say were more practical guidelines while still meeting the federal mandate.

According to those new rates, 45 percent of African American students, 52 percent of Hispanics, 68 percent of whites and 82 percent of Asian students must pass the test.

The plan also breaks out students with disabilities and economically disadvantaged students with pass rates of 33 percent and 47 percent, respectively.

The change would require all students reach a pass rate of 73 percent within six years. Before, the rates were staggered and increased each year in smaller increments.

Calhoun argues the new plan sends the wrong message.

'Today, you do not feel that certain groups can do as well as others. You have to accept that premise for any of this to make sense.' he says.

State Senator Mamie Locke, who's also president of the Legislative Black Caucus, stands behind a letter she sent this summer to the state calling the plan an 'aim low approach.'

State education department spokesman Charles Pyle says the board didn't arbitrarily assign rates to different races but rather based them on the actual pass rates of students who took the new, harder math SOL in spring.

'The starting point for these benchmarks actually reflects the achievement of the lowest performing students,' explains Pyle. 'Does the state have different expectations for different students? No. Each student still has to get the same number of questions right in order to pass the SOL.'

He adds the standards for a school to receive full accreditation haven't changed.

Governor Bob McDonnell also doesn't like different rates for different students.

'It's absolutely unacceptable to have anything but the same standards for all of our children,' he insists.

He adds he asked the board to revisit its original plan but hasn't said whether the new one requiring the same pass rate in six years is acceptable.

Pyle says the board feels it has an aggressive approach to close historic achievement gaps among different groups of students because students with lower pass rates have to make up the most ground in six years.

Most schools already have much higher pass rates, so the new guidelines will more directly affect the lower performing schools. However, schools with pass rates over 73 percent must still show improvement.

'This means the students that are the furthest behind have to make the most progress. It's unfortunate fact that we have achievement gaps. The goal here is to provide a path that over time, over the course of six years, will result in making substantial reductions in those achievement gaps. The students start at different places but at the end of this period, the goal is for them to end at the same place,' stresses Pyle.

The state's proposal still has to be approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

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