Opinion: Lowering bar is wrong move

November 25, 2012


I take this one personally. Let me tell you why.

As I recall, I scored 960 on my SAT. This was good enough for second best in my class and many congratulations and backslaps from teachers and administrators. Based on that, I thought I’d done pretty well.

So I’m in college, right? Freshman year, and I get to talking with my roommate, this white guy named Reed, about our SAT scores. Reed’s kind of sheepish, finally confessing that he scored “only” about 1200.

That’s when I realized I had not done pretty well. I had done pretty well for a student of John C. Fremont High, in the poverty, crime and grime of South Los Angeles. I had done pretty well for a black kid.

As it happens, I started classes at the University of Southern California at 15 years of age, got good grades and came out four years later with my degree. So there was nothing wrong with my brain. I’ve always suspected my modest SAT score and the fact that I was encouraged to celebrate it said less about me than about the expectations others had of me — and kids like me.

So yes, it touches me in a raw spot, this news that two states — Florida and Virginia — have adopted new education standards under which they would set different goals for students, based on race, ethnicity and disability.

Like many other states, Florida and Virginia requested waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act’s unrealistic goal of having every child at grade level in reading and math by 2014. But these states used their waivers to create separate and unequal performance standards for their black, white, Hispanic, Asian and disabled children.

Last month, for example, Florida set a goal of having 86 percent of white kids at or above grade level in math by 2018. For black kids, the goal is 74 percent. Virginia is wrestling with similar standards.

In fairness, both states would want you to know a couple of things. First, that these dissimilar standards reflect the achievement gap, the fact that kids do not start toward the goal from the same place. Black kids may have to cover more ground to reach a lower benchmark because they are starting from further behind. The second thing is that these are interim goals and the ultimate goal remains the same: Close the achievement gap and educate every child to her fullest potential.

Understood. But if that’s what these standards are, can we talk for a moment about what they feel like? The best analogy I can give you is based in the fact that some coaches and athletic directors have noted a steep decline in the number of white kids going out for basketball. They feel as if they cannot compete with their black classmates. What if we addressed that by lowering the rim for white kids? What if we allowed them four points for each made basket?

Can you imagine how those white kids would feel whenever they took the court? How long would it be before they internalized the lie that there is something about being white that makes you inherently inferior when it comes to hoops, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki notwithstanding?

Indeed, for all the talk about the so-called “reverse racism” of affirmative action, I have long argued that the real problem with it — and the reason it needs an expiration date — is that it might give African-American kids the mistaken idea they carry some inherent deficiency that renders them unable to compete with other kids on an equal footing.

We should be wary of anything, however well-intentioned, however temporary, that conveys that impression to our children. I am proof we have been doing just that for a very long time. And it burns — I tell you this from experience — to realize people have judged you by a lower standard, especially when you had the ability to meet the higher one all along. So this “interim” cannot end soon enough.

Because ultimately, you do not fix education by lowering the bar. You do it by lifting the kids.

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CST each Wednesday at


Bob Harvey 2 years, 1 month ago

Bravo Mr. Pitts. Something we can surely agree upon.

grammaddy 2 years, 1 month ago

I fear a world run by adults who were never spanked as kids and given trophies just for participating.

chootspa 2 years, 1 month ago

Oy, a spanking debate. I'll just be right here with my tasty bowl of popcorn.

notaubermime 2 years, 1 month ago

I can't really say that I agree with broad generalizations based on race. It seems to me that what Florida and Virginia should really be doing is coming up with a progress plan for different school districts. Maybe if they classified children by the performance of their district rather than by their race, it would present a more accurate view of what is actually going on.

tomatogrower 2 years, 1 month ago

And that would more closely identify their socio economic status too, which I think is a bigger factor than race.

jhawkinsf 2 years, 1 month ago

The problem with setting different standards for different races, ethnicities, disabilities is that it encourages us to become victims, as victimization has a rewards attached to it. Mass. Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren suddenly becomes part Native American not because she is proud of such a heritage, but because there is the anticipation of a reward.

I recall being told something many years ago, something that I'm not sure was true, but I believed it at the time. I was told that in the years of my youth, some six decades ago, there were a couple of states (New York being one of them) where it was illegal to ask one's race on job and school applications. Not just that it was optional, but illegal to even ask. I wonder if going to that type of system wouldn't be a worthwhile try. We've spent the last several decades trying to figure out how to balance inequities, with only moderate success and equal resentment.

grammaddy 2 years, 1 month ago

Elizabeth Warren did NOT "suddenly become Native American". Reward?? I think most Natives might disagree with you there.

jhawkinsf 2 years, 1 month ago

Her claim that she was Native American came when the school she was at was looking to increase it's minority numbers. As a woman and as a member of a ethnic minority (Native American), that enhanced her chances for advancement at that school. The claim that she is Native American has been disputed. But it still stands that she never identified with being Native American until such time as a reward was attached to that claim. At least that's my understanding of that particular case.

jhawkinsf 2 years, 1 month ago

An interesting read. Thank you for the link.

chootspa 2 years, 1 month ago

False, but good to know what news sources you read. It does explain a lot.

Abdu Omar 2 years, 1 month ago

There can never be equality anywhere in the world without leveling the playing field everywhere on earth.

jhawkinsf 2 years, 1 month ago

To finish that ... And because the playing field can never be leveled, inequality will always exist.

deec 2 years, 1 month ago

Of course there are more people living in poverty. As good-paying jobs continue to leave the country, more and more people will fall into poverty. Considering half of all workers earn below 26,364 annually, poverty rates will continue to rise. Depressing wages for the makers increases the wealth of the takers at the top.

Ron Holzwarth 2 years, 1 month ago

Leonard Pitts Jr. scored 960 on the SAT, and his roommate scored only about 1200? Damn! I think that's rather shocking, so why then am I such a loser? But, that's a pedantic question, I also made Kansas City military history on the entrance ability test scores and still ended up being an epic loser.

They're really not that predictive of how well you will do in an academic environment. Motivation and concentration are also very important, and I have always had problems with both. Plus, I have other problems as well. But with ability tests, I used to be able to score off the charts.

verity 2 years, 1 month ago

There is much truth in that. I am good at taking objective tests. That certainly doesn't correlate one to one with success in other things. Seemingly simple instructions in English often seem totally baffling to me. I need pictures.

This whole subject is very tricky and I don't see that anyone has come up with a good answer. No test can ever be perfect and yet we have to rely on something to measure success in education.

verity 2 years, 1 month ago

As long as we have prejudices regarding race, culture and socio-economic status, we are going to have these problems. That is certainly not the whole problem, but it does factor in.

I'm also a bit bothered by the comparison of basketball with education. Not sure that comparison works. Success in basketball is not necessary for success in life. Getting an adequate education is somewhat more important.

tomatogrower 2 years, 1 month ago

I believe the point he was making was about the mental part of talent. Yes, you need the basic capacity, but if you don't have the motivation and the belief that you can do it, it won't happen. Part of that belief comes from the messages we get from others. I grew up with a bipolar father who told us kids we were stupid everyday, but I have a rebellious nature, so I proved him wrong. Unfortunately my other siblings haven't recovered as much. I even attended a school where some of the teachers and the counsellor figured I came from a working class family, so why would I be interested in college. So I didn't attend college right out of high school. But I proved them wrong in the end too. But few people are like this. If they are put down, they often stay down.

On the other hand, kids should not be praised for everything they do too. We went too far the other way. Many kids these days may have good self esteem, but have an unrealistic sense for their self worth. They think they should be praised just for showing up. The get to college or have a high school teacher who assesses them honestly, then they can't deal with it. They don't know how to learn from their mistakes and their failures if the parents tell them they never fail.

verity 2 years, 1 month ago

Point taken.

Yes, some people can get beyond dehumanizing criticism and some can't seem to and are permanently damaged. And, unfortunately, even when one does recover, it can all be taken away in an instant by someone who likes to put the knife in and twist it.

Mike Ford 2 years, 1 month ago

Hey fact avoiders....Elizabeth Warren got into college without any preference exceptions and due to your government and it's Dawes Commissions that stole Oklahoma from many tribes and gave each tribal member a small fraction of what was previously held....people were looked over and cheated by your government. I met an elderly woman who is Osage and was intentionally taken to an orphanage and cheated out of Osage oil headrights from the 1906 Osage agreement by white people. Research before you coach...

jhawkinsf 2 years, 1 month ago

It wasn't when Warren was entering college. It was when she was on the faculty at Harvard. The university had been criticized for it's lack of minorities within it's faculty so Warren stepped up and became Native American.

verity 2 years, 1 month ago

So perhaps Ms Warren screwed up when that happened. If that is all her critics have, then they don't have much. We all (possibly even you) screw up at some time. To keep hearing the same thing played over and over in order to defame someone really only shows that people want to criticize them and can't find anything else.

jhawkinsf 2 years, 1 month ago

I didn't mean to be overly critical of Ms. Warren. Yes, we all screw up, myself included. But my first comment that referenced her had to do with a system of rewards. Offer the reward and you encourage people to seek that reward, whether they are entitled to it or not.

chootspa 2 years, 1 month ago

Except for the part where she got absolutely no benefit for her ancestry, sure. And the part where she didn't make it up, but believed her family's oral history on the matter, and the part where you're only inclined to doubt her claim because of assumptions you're making from her physical appearance which doesn't match your mental picture of "Cherokee." And the part where you still think there's some sort of system of rewards and fabulous prizes in this society for being born a member of a minority group that would outweigh the structural disadvantages. Let's take a statistical sampling and see how the income, educational standing, and employment status compares shall we?

Look, I think we can all agree with Pitts on this matter. Lowering the standard would be a bad idea for many reasons, not the least of which is because people like you already think there's an incentive to pretend to be a minority.

Mike Ford 2 years, 1 month ago

fyi.... Actress Heather Locklear is Lumbee Indian by descendency and probably not tribally enrolled. Val Kilmer is non enrolled Cherokee as is Tommy Lee Jones and Willy Nelson. Brett Farve is Mississippi Choctaw but at a 1/4th Choctaw he's below the 1/2 blood quantum requirement of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. I've watched as conservatives who've made a career out of villifying Indian tribes with states rights act now as if they know anything at all about indigenous peoples. Please...when an issue is above your knowledge bar and the voters of Massachusetts say so publically....let it go.....repeating false outrage is a tried and true GOP staple but it only works amongst the uninformed people who believe such gospel. You'd think the 2012 election results would bring a sobering reality to nonsense believers.

happyrearviewmirror 2 years, 1 month ago

No amount of raw ability can guarantee success. It would be nice to believe that emotional intelligence can make up for the deficits of too much book smarts, but politics count for a lot too. Sometimes ( more often than not) you have to be willing to sell out. Schools teach mainly obedience-- especially these days.

Standardized tests are not very sensitive to culture differences and how those get built into measures of intelligence/ ability either. To succeed in Kansas you have got to be down with KS cultural norms, which can strike outsiders as more than a little weird and socially and politically unaware. You can't trust that you just will be allowed to be who you are and use and grow your own potential in Lawrence because plenty of aggressive people will likely mess with you and tell you who you are based on their prejudice and bigotry. People in general love stereotypes because they are a quick shorthand that spares us the necessity to think of and treat others as whole, capable human beings on their terms.

Mike Ford 2 years, 1 month ago

let's forget how the scale was tipped in the caucasian favor from the beginning of this country. let's forget who was originally allowed to vote or own land stolen from Indian tribes. The biggest kicker in that situation is that all of these archie bunkers hate the US Government that stopped them from being bigots and integrated schools, businesses, and places of work and forget that the same US Government stole land for these archie bunker's ancestors when those people squatted illegally on Indian lands and these ancient archie bunkers were allowed to stay as they falsely claimed that the tribes were the aggressors and the US Government forced land theft treaties on the tribes because of the squatting archie bunkers. Please curse the US Government that allowed your ancestors land to live on because in that instance conservatives you were the beneficiaries of affirmative action with free Indian land and free African labor to create your mythical utopia of White rule, White Christianity, and White values... it must suck when someone puts a needle to your balloon of historical mythology.....

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