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There is a reason why so many in Virginia and throughout the nation have criticized the Old Dominion’s supposedly “ambitious” yet “achievable” proficiency targets: Because they set low expectations for the state’s districts and schools to improve achievement for black, Latino, and poor kids, and don’t encourage the districts to take on the strong reforms needed to do so. And considering that Virginia has done little to address its educational woes — including addressing the mere one-percent decline in the percentage of young black men in fourth-grade mired in functional illiteracy (as measured on the National Assessment of Educational Progress) between 2003 and 2011 — Gov. Bob McDonnell, state Supt. Patricia Wright, and their colleagues were rightfully shamed by reformers and civil rights activists into revamping those targets (and the Obama administration, which also moved to push Virginia into revising them, deserves criticism for accepting those low targets in the first place).

So it is hard for Thomas B. Fordham Institute research czar Mike Petrilli to offer any spirited defense of Virginia’s woeful proficiency targets (or even defend the state’s unwillingness to address teacher quality issues and expand school choice). But this is education’s silly season (which makes your editor wish he can go back on his vacation in beautiful Hawaii), and Petrilli gives it the old frat house try. Taking particular aim at Eduwonk and Time columnist Andy Rotherham (along with others who have criticized Virginia’s proficiency targets), Petrilli declares that the Dominion was right in embracing low expectation. Why? Because state officials are aiming for what he calls “achievable”. From where he sits, setting ambitious and aspirational targets as was done in the past decade under the No Child Left Behind Act — including through its Adequate Yearly Progress accountability and aspirational 100 percent proficiency targets — will do little to spur reform because doing so will “lose credibility with the very people expected to make it succeed—the educators.”

As you would expect, Petrilli’s piece has started a nice Twitter (and e-mail) fight between himself and Rotherham, who, as a former state education board member, has more than a little experience with how badly Virginia has faltered on the reform front. But I’m not going to weigh in on their fight; after all, Beltway reformers wouldn’t be who they are if they didn’t spar among themselves. Instead, your editor is more than a tad concerned with Petrilli’s general penchant for small-ball thinking, in this case, his viewthat setting a low bar for improving student achievement should even be acceptable.

A crux of Petrilli’s argument lies with the supposition that No Child’s accountability provisions have failed, a line of thinking used by some other Beltway reformers (notably Petrilli’s comrade-in-arms, Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute and the otherwise-thoughtful Kevin Carey, now of the New America Foundation). As your editor has pointed out ad nauseam, this isn’t even close to reality. Between 2003 and 2011, the percentage of all fourth-graders reading Below Basic proficiency declined from 39 percent to 33 percent in 2011; the percentage of black students who were functionally illiterate declined from 60 percent to 51 percent during that period, while the percentage of poor and minority kids reading Below Basic declined from 54 percent to 48 percent. To quantify this overall (based on federal enrollment data and Dropout Nation‘s projections of fourth-grade enrollment for 2010-2011), it is likely that 217,432 fewer fourth-graders were functionally illiterate — and likely to drop out — in 2011 than in the year after No Child was passed. Meanwhile more students were reading at proficient and advanced level, increasing by three points (from 31 percent to 34 percent), a faster level of growth than the two percentage point clip between 1998 and 2002. Thanks to the accountability provisions, states and districts have also taken the first key steps in providing all children, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, with the strong, comprehensive college preparatory curricula. Between 2002 and 2011, the percentage of high school seniors graduating after having taken at least one Advanced Placement exam increased by a two-fold; this includes a three-fold increase in the number of black high school seniors taking at least one A.P. exam.

This leads to another problem with Petrilli’s argument: The belief that somehow demanding states to hold districts and schools to high expectations (and expecting the adults who work within them to take on the kind of reforms needed to achieve those goals) is a bad thing. One wouldn’t expect a reformer to actually embrace this kind of education traditionalist logic. But that is exactly what Petrilli does. In the process, Petrilli fails to realize that proficiency targets, like so many other aspects of public policy, are clear communications of the expectations we have for our society, especially when it comes to ensuring that every child gets a high-quality education.  The 100 percent proficiency target set by No Child, for example, was an ambitious statement that all kids should get the education they need to write their own life stories, while AYP’s emphasis on subgroup accountability made clear that states, districts, and schools need to do well by all children, regardless of who they are. Sure, states and districts haven’t come close to meeting those goals. But AYP and the 100 percent proficiency target have put much-needed pressure on states and districts to embrace systemic reform, including expanding school choice and overhauling teacher evaluation systems. In fact, without these lofty goals, more states would have followed the path of Virginia instead of more-aggressive reform states such as Florida — and the gains made in the past decade wouldn’t have been achieved.

As I noted last month in one of the many critiques of the Obama administration’s No Child waiver gambit, when the bar is set low, those who have to meet it won’t bother to go above and beyond. In fact, they won’t even meet those low targets. One can easily surmise that the low proficiency levels set by McDonnell, Wright, and their colleagues essentially proclaim that they don’t expect districts to do very much for the black, Latino, and Native kids in their care. In fact, one can dare say these leaders don’t even expect much from those kids themselves. This isn’t to say that these officials don’t care about these children, but that they are disinterested in taking on the tough work needed to overhaul districts and schools in order provide kids with the schools they deserve — which includes challenging the soft bigotry of low expectations for poor and minority kids held by far too many adults working in American public education in Virginia and the rest of the nation, and the affiliates of the National Education Association which has succeeded for so long in keeping the Old Dominion’s status quo quite ante. And the children and families, in turn, probably shouldn’t expect districts or state leaders to ever meet their obligations.

The results for Virginia’s children will be the same old junk all over, with districts such as Fairfax County inflating their not-so-well-deserved reputations for providing high-quality education while failing to do anything for the children who attend their schools or for the families whose taxes sustain them. “Achievable” wouldn’t be acceptable to Petrilli if his child was attending any one of Virginia’s schools. You know that it wouldn’t be acceptable to me either. So why should this be acceptable at all for anyone’s children in Virginia? Or kids throughout the rest of the nation?

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