Value of school waivers questioned

A national report Thursday questioned one of the key strategies Louisiana is using to improve student performance after the state landed some highly touted waivers last year from the federal government.

“To counteract possible backsliding, it’s critical for advocates and citizens in every waiver state to do a thorough, clear-eyed assessment of these new accountability systems,” officials of the The Education Trust wrote in a report.

State Superintendent of Education John White, who pushed for the waiver, said the changes are working well.

“We are right in line with this report,” White said.

The group in Washington, D.C., calls itself an advocate of closing the achievement gap, especially between white and black students and students from low-income families compared to those from middle and upper incomes.

Louisiana last May was one of eight states that landed a federal waiver from “onerous” rules in exchange for major changes in how public schools and students are evaluated.

The waiver applies to the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind Act, which is aimed at improving student achievement.

The looser rules freed restrictions from $375 million in federal aid — 64 percent of the total — to give state and local educators more flexibility and less paperwork.

One of the strategies, White said last year, is a new method to aid students performing below grade level in math and English, which is a recurring concern among state education leaders.

He said those students would become a new “super subgroup” and schools where they made better-than-expected gains would benefit in annual school performance scores, which determine letter grades assigned to each school.

The report noted that other states are using similar approaches — student performance rather than demographics.

“The logic of this focus is appealing,” according to the report.

“There are, however, big risk here,” it says.

“Conflating ‘closing the achievement gap’ and ‘moving low-achieving students’ can send the dangerous message that gap-closing is only about raising the floor,” authors of the review wrote.

“This ignores the urgent need to close gaps at the high end of the achievement spectrum, too,” the study says.

White said the state’s approach follows what the group favors.

“We are doing just as they suggested, to focus on the lowest-performing of the lower-performing students,” he said.

White said that, in addition, the state still reports scores by race, gender, disability and other areas.

In another area, the review touted Louisiana as one of the leaders in efforts to upgrade schools that have failed to show improvements after state intervention.

One such push is the designation of seven schools in north Baton Rouge for special attention as the “Baton Rouge Achievement Zone.”

The schools are getting focus from White, who has called for sweeping changes.

A report last year by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation said the schools amount to a breakaway district that may eventually number two dozen or so schools.

Michigan and Tennessee have followed Louisiana’s example, according to the study.