by Will Sentell
Capitol news bureau
October 23, 2012
State officials said Monday that 36 percent of public schools in Louisiana are rated D and F, down from 44 percent last year.
In addition, 36 percent of schools are rated A and B, and 75 percent of all schools showed gains on the all-important school performance scores that determine the grades, state Superintendent of Education John White told reporters.
“This is a day to celebrate,” White said, adding that major education challenges remain.
The grades, which began last year, stem from a 2010 law pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal.
They are linked mostly to how students did on key state tests, including the LEAP test that fourth- and eighth-graders have to pass for promotion and end-of-course tests for high school students.
The grades are designed to make it easier for parents and other taxpayers to see how the state’s 1,303 public school are faring.
Last year’s results sparked a political firestorm, with Jindal and others arguing that they pointed up the need for sweeping changes in public schools, which the Legislature approved. This year’s results are not related 2012 overhaul legislation.
Opponents call the grading system unfair, and renewed their criticism after the results were issued on Monday.
Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said the gains show that the state did not need to enact laws earlier this year, including a major expansion of the state’s voucher law so that low-income students from C, D and F public schools can attend private and parochial schools.
Monaghan also said more credit is due to teachers and other educators in the trenches.
Even with the gains, the number of public schools rated F rose from 115 to 157.
White said that increase stemmed from a new policy approved by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, or BESE, that requires schools to score at least 75 out of 200 to avoid a failing grade, up from 65 last year.
“That is a result of the BESE board raising the bar on what is an F,” he said.
At the other end, the number of school districts that earned an A rose from one to seven, including the Ascension, West Feliciana, Zachary and Central school systems.
“I couldn’t be more pleased with the growth we have seen in Ascension Parish,” said Ascension Superintendent Patrice Pujol, who joined White at the press conference.
The East Baton Rouge Parish School District rose from a D to a C in the latest tabulations.
Leslie Jacobs, a former BESE member who lives in New Orleans, said the results show that scores for public schools in New Orleans have risen by 36.8 points since 2005, best in the state.
“The data makes it clear that, while we still have a long way to go, the progress our schools have made is undeniable,” said Jacobs, who is founder of Educate Now!
The state’s school performance score shot up by its biggest margin ever, sparking questions on whether the state changed the way the results are calculated.
But White said in a telephone interview after the press conference that the state did not switch its methodology.
He said high school students showed a dramatic gain over last year on end-of-course tests, which boost the letter grade, and the state’s high school graduation rate rose to 71.4 percent, part of a years-long effort to reach 80 percent by 2014.
The 440 schools that met state growth targets will qualify for rewards of about $8,500 each.
Education officials and others said that, even with the progress, public schools in Louisiana face major hurdles.
Chas Roemer, a member of BESE who lives in Baton Rouge, said about 200,000 of the state’s 700,000 public school students are performing below grade level.
“The challenges are still immense,” said Roemer, who attended the news conference.
The letter grades replaced a system in which the state assigned stars to public schools, depending on performance.
“I didn’t have a clue,” state Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, said of the old system.
Assigning schools traditional letter grades “gives parents a chance to see where the good schools are,” said Carter, who attended the news conference.