What’s driving school report card progress?
Are public schools in Louisiana really on the upswing, or is the state’s latest education report card a one-time blip?
State Superintendent of Education John White, who is Gov. Bobby Jindal’s chief public schools lieutenant, says the newest results are cause for celebration.
Three out of four public schools showed gains on school performance scores, which mostly show how students fared on keys state tests.
More than one out of three public schools improved enough to qualify for $8,500 rewards from the state.
Louisiana’s list of D and F schools, which totaled 44 percent last year, dipped to 36 percent this time, even with higher standards that schools have to meet to avoid trouble.
Yet the gains in high schools, which helped fuel the state’s largest one-year improvement ever, continue to draw scrutiny and skepticism from opposite ends of the education spectrum.
“They keep changing the rules every year,” said Michael Walker-Jones, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Educators, of how the state Department of Education figures the scores, which determine the all-important letter grades.
“Every year, the rules change, and every year, they are able to manipulate,” Walker-Jones said of state officials.
Walker-Jones and other teacher union leaders have clashed with White for months and Jindal for years.
However, Brigitte Nieland, who follows education issues for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, is also leery of the results, and her group backed most of the Jindal-backed overhaul.
Nieland said that, while she and others would love to believe that public schools showed huge gains, the size of the increases sparked questions and comments.
“The reality is we all know data doesn’t do that,” she said.
White insists that the gains stem largely from dramatic improvements in end-of-course exams, which high school students take at the conclusion of the course.
Those tests replaced the old Graduation Exit Exam, which used to measure students’ knowledge in broader areas, not just a single course, before they could earn a traditional high school diploma.
“All in all, I would say that essentially schools have done exactly what we asked them to do,” White said. “That is why you have seen the growth you have seen.”
Yet when dozens of high schools produce double-digit growth, and when schools that might grow by 3, 4 or 5 points shoot up 20 points and more on a 200-point scale, it raises questions.
Did the rigor of end-of-course exams somehow dip so much that it allowed lots of students to breeze through this time?
Did this year’s calculations compare apples to apples — the same tests in 2012 as in 2011 — or is there a newness in this year’s figures, or the weight they were given, that helps explain the huge high school improvements?
The end-of-course exams account for 70 percent of high school scores.
The other 30 percent is graduation rates, which have been the target of intense improvement efforts since 2009.
That is when the Legislature passed a law that, realistically or not, requires the state to reach an 80 percent graduation rate by 2014.
In 2010 the rate was 67.2 percent.
Last year, it was 71.4 percent, which is a gigantic gain where improvements usually move up by a point or so.
Schools got bonus points for exceeding 65 percent too, which also brightened this year’s high school results.
End-of-course tests are supposed to be more rigorous in 2013.
“What is going to come out next year is going to be a completely different scenario,” said Michael Faulk, superintendent of the Central school system, one of seven that earned an A rating.
Will Sentell covers state education policy for The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau.