The Institutional Racism Behind Getting to Proficient

It's been a great day so far and it's just 10AM. I had the pleasure of reading to my daughter's 3K Pre-School class and received an overwhelming applause from the cutest group of kids imaginable. All of them displayed mastery of social emotional skills along with phenomenal language development. They haven't been formally assessed yet but leveraging my knowledge of assessments and early childhood development, I can ballpark that at least 80% of the class would be considered "Advanced Proficient" if they were to take a standardized assessment.

Hence, the dilemma. As the Managing Partner of Yardstick Learning, I've had firsthand experience working with high needs urban schools, parochial schools, as well as extremely affluent public and private school systems. The achievement gap across these socioeconomic groups is well documented, but no one ever seems to focus on the "expectations gap". The education reform community is more influential and powerful than ever before and the national lens has been focused on low income communities and getting all kids to proficient. However, in affluent communities, setting the bar to all children getting to proficient would result in the termination of everyone in the district including the board. The expectations in affluent communities are far greater than getting to proficient and instead focus on AP exam scores, Tier 1 college admissions, and "Advanced Proficient" percentages.

Few people outside of education actually know what "proficient" means as it relates to the recently implemented common core standards. I'll pull out a few Kindergarten standards and challenge any readers of this Op-ed to believe that they wouldn't pull their own kids out of a class if this is where their child is at at the END of their Kindergarten year. For example, according to Common Core Standard CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.K.1.D, 6 year olds at the end of their Kindergarten year should understand and use question words (interrogatives) (e.g., who, what, where, when, why, how). I mentioned that my daughter just began 3K Pre-K this year and before she completed her 2 year old pre-school program, she and her classmates were proficient at understanding and using question words. The same holds true for any affluent community in the nation. Why then should "proficient" be the target for impoverished kids when kids from higher income communities mastered what's considered proficient 2-4 years before the standard is even assessed?

Let's look at another Kindergarten standard to help prove my point even further. According to Common Core Standard CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.K.CC.B.5, 6 year olds should be able to "count to answer "how many?" questions about as many as 20 things arranged in a line, a rectangular array, or a circle, or as many as 10 things in a scattered configuration; given a number from 1-20, count out that many objects." Again, my 3 year old isn't a genius nor are her classmates but they can all do this at least moderately well. This standard is saying that she will be "proficient" if she can do this in 2 1/2 more YEARS. Is that not ridiculous?

The basic point of my argument is that "proficient" is such a low standard that not a single child who scores "proficient" in all areas according to the standards will actually be college or career ready upon matriculation from high school. The expectations are too low for any of these kids to rely on "proficiency" to help them get admitted into a competitive college and there's nothing about any of these standards that are actually preparing these kids to be career ready for any type of position deemed to be on a "career track" by any American standard. These standards aren't good enough for White students so why should schools be allowed to tout them as success for low-income Black and Brown students? How many times have you seen schools say that they've transformed or turned around a school by getting up to 70% proficient? Or what about the schools that brag that 100% of their kids are proficient? I implore you to peel back the onion to find out what percent of those kids are advanced proficient. And trust me, if that number is less than 10% and they're touting 100% proficiency then you should know that the school is nothing more than a testing mill preparing kids for standardized assessments.

Affluent communities try to build critical thinkers who are exposed to a vast array of opportunities and curriculum that explores all of the core content areas with a critical eye. They're not teaching rote memorization of a standard so that kids can do well on an assessment. They're teaching kids to actually "get it". Many of them may even have fewer students that score proficient but nearly all of the students who are proficient actually score "advanced proficient" on an assessment because they have a firm understanding of the material.

We must choose our children's education "eyes wide open" and understand when the wool is being pulled over our eyes. The institutional racism that is "proficient" only continues to keep Black and Brown children from ever experiencing the real American dream. We need to understand the standards in order to challenge the standards. This is our responsibility as this determines our future!

This blogger graduated from Goldman Sachs' 10,000 Small Businesses program. Goldman Sachs is a partner of the What Is Working: Small Businesses section.