The Florida Board of Education approved new benchmarks last week that will set math and reading standards for its K-12 students based on race and ethnicity.
The Sun Sentinel reports that the state's new plan sets different targets for students according to their heritages: "By 2018, the state wants 90 percent of Asian students, 88 percent of white, 81 percent of Hispanics and 74 percent of blacks to be at or above reading grade level."
Opponents of the state's plan argue that the practice of setting different goals based on race is "insulting and feeds racial stereotypes."
"I don't know if I would call the plan racist, but I think we need to call out the Board of Education for making a kind of concession that really just re-inscribes our perceptions about race from the past," Lehigh University's Dr. James Peterson told msnbc's Alex Witt on Sunday.
"At the end of the day, you need to have statewide standards for all the students that are there," Peterson added, "but then you have to do the work as the Board of Education and other entities to bring everybody up to those standards."
Cheryl Etters, a spokesperson from the Florida Department of Education, told the Sun Sentinel that the state's new goals are not meant to lower expectations for certain groups. "Of course we want every student to be successful," Etters said. "But we do have to take into account their starting point."
Peterson argued that while the Board of Education was not acting out of racism, the state needed to recognize that there are various factors that affect a student's performance in school outside of their heritage:
"We do have to acknowledge that there are certain districts within the state of Florida that are under-resourced in the ways which the Florida education system works. They don't allocate the resources across the school districts in a way that's equitable, and then there's all these other factors: there's residential factors, there's crime factors, there's other sort of factors that feed into the kinds of demographics that you get in any one particular school district. But when you reduce it to race in this way, you belie a lot of those complexities... What the school board needs to understand is there is a thing called perception here, and when you re-inscribe the perceptions of race, you're gonna find some limitations in what you can do with these kinds of benchmarks."
Florida isn't the only state setting different standards for different groups of students. According to a new report from Education Week, several states have revised their academic goals after receiving waivers from the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
So far, 33 states and the District of Columbia have applied for and received NCLB waivers. Of those 34 new state accountability plans, Education Week found that only eight states set the same targets for all students by the end of the 2016-2017 school year. The other states—such as Delaware, Georgia, and Minnesota—set different standards based on race and ethnicity.
President Obama addressed this issue in an interview with NBC News in September, telling NBC's Savannah Guthrie he was bothered by the race-based standards.
"One of the good things about No Child Left Behind was to say all kids can learn," Obama said. "Black, white, Hispanic—doesn't matter. That everybody should be able to achieve at a certain level."
Opponents of the new standards argue that states are essentially saying some groups of students cannot achieve at the same level as another group, which detracts from the goal of the education system: to provide an equal opportunity for all students.
Last month, Professor Pedro Noguera from New York University joined The Melissa Harris-Perry Show to discuss the challenges in education reform and how the achievement gap is often affected by various factors related to social inequality. Families with access to private tutors and more affluent schools, the ability to send children to enrichment summer camps, and the opportunity to travel often see children who perform better in school and on standardized tests.
"There is inequality outside of school compounded by inequality within schools," Noguera said.