Public school exams undergoing sweeping changes

A test that fourth- and eighth-graders have to pass for promotion is on the way out, part of a series of changes unfolding in how Louisiana measures what public students know.

Last week about 100,000 students in grades 4 and 8 took the first part of LEAP, which is being given for the next-to-last year.

Students will finish the LEAP exams April 8 to April 11.

In addition, those in grades 3, 5, 6 and 7 will take another skills test called iLEAP at the same time.

That test, too, will be ended after a final round in the spring 2014.

High school students in upcoming weeks will take end-of-course exams, which have gradually replaced the Graduation Exit Exam that ended last year.

But those tests will be revamped in 2015 as part of a nationwide drive for more rigorous academic standards, which take effect in 2014.

“It is a lot of change,” said Stephanie Desselle, who tracks public school issues for the Council for a Better Louisiana.

Put simply, the changes will affect most of the state’s roughly 700,000 public school students.

The LEAP test — it stands for Louisiana Educational Assessment Program — has been a symbol of the state’s drive to improve public schools since 2000.

Fourth- and eighth-graders have to pass the math and English parts of the test, and meet other classroom requirements, to move to the fifth- and ninth-grades.

Backers say the exams have accomplished what they were supposed to.

State Superintendent of Education John White said Louisiana is rated fifth in the nation in improvements on the National Assessment For Educational Progress, which is known as the nation’s report card. “It absolutely served its purpose,” White said of LEAP.

Critics tried for years in the Legislature to end the test or the requirement that students have to pass it for promotion.

State Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, has long criticized LEAP and its requirement that students pass the test to move to the next grade. “I believe in general we can have rigor,” Smith said.

“But why we rely on testing a child to pass, just doesn’t compute,” she said.

“We cannot teach to some kind of test,” said Smith, a former middle school English teacher who also served on the East Baton Rouge Parish school board for 13 years.

Desselle, who served on education panels as LEAP was rolled out in the late 1990s, said the state badly needed exams tied to certain standards.

“In that sense it has served us well,” Desselle said. “It allowed us to know where our serious weaknesses were for the last 13 or 14 years.”

Backers also note that, even though passing standards for LEAP have risen since 2000, the success rate has gone up too.

In 2004, 78 percent of fourth-graders passed after spring tests and summer re-tests, according to the state Department of Education.

Last year 89 percent did so.

In 2006, 71 percent of eighth-graders passed. Last year 84 percent did so.

Whether the tests that replace LEAP will require fourth-and eighth-graders to meet certain standards for passage is unclear.

That will likely be decided by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which sets policies for public school students, or the Legislature.

What is driving all the changes is Louisiana’s adoption of tougher, national classroom standards that educators call the common core curriculum.

New tests to measure how well students are learning and how they compare with students in other states are on the horizon too.

In general, the revised courses will focus on more in-depth study in fewer areas with the aim of making students more competitive with others worldwide.

Starting in the spring of 2015, instead of taking LEAP and iLEAP students will take new exams in math and English tied to the new curriculum.

This year’s LEAP and iLEAP exams, for the first time, reflect more of what students will be expected to know under the common core lineup.

The end-of-course tests are also in line for changes.

Under current rules high school students take the exams in Algebra I, geometry, English II, English III, biology and U.S. history.

Students have to earn a “fair” or above — a sign that they have mastered the fundamental knowledge of the subject — in three of six subjects to earn a standard diploma.

Starting with the 2014-15 school year, end-of-course tests in math and English will be replaced by exams linked to the new, common core curriculum.

New tests will be developed for science and social studies.