BESE tweaks school grading policy

A last-ditch bid to impose a two-year moratorium on letter grades for public schools failed Wednesday.

Instead, the state’s top school board voted to tweak a new policy so that schools will not be unfairly penalized as they move to the national academic standards called Common Core.

All the action followed Tuesday’s three-hour debate, which ended with the panel endorsing a wide range of changes to soften the impact of the overhaul.

The always controversial grades issue again sparked a flurry of motions at the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. The day before members easily rejected an earlier bid to scrub the grades temporarily.

The grades stem from a 2010 state law. They are aimed at showing parents and others how schools are operating.

Critics say the grades are too imprecise to be meaningful.

Lottie Beebe, a BESE member and superintendent of the St. Martin Parish School System, proposed that the state halt the use of letter grades for public schools in 2014 and 2015.

Under Beebe’s plan the state would only issue school peformance scores, which mostly reflect how students fared on key tests.

Beebe said that, despite assurances from state Superintendent of Education John White, continued use of letter grades during the move to tougher classroom standards risked denigrating teachers and others.

“Teachers are once again feeling the stress,” she told colleagues. “We know that the letter grade system is broken.”

Opponents countered that parents and others want the grades, even during a time when national academic standards are causing major changes in Louisiana classrooms.

“It would be difficult to say we just aren’t going to have letter grades for two years,” said Walter Lee, a BESE member who lives in Shreveport.

BESE eventually endorsed a policy without objection that makes slight changes in the one the board endorsed on Tuesday.

Under the original plan, the distribution of letter grades for public schools would remain the same in 2014 and 2015 as it was in 2013. That means that, if 15 percent of public schools earned A’s in 2013, the same breakdown percentage would be assigned to schools in 2014 and 2015.

Under the change, any school whose state performance score stayed the same or rose would be prevented from dropping during the move to new classroom expectations.

Even though that is unlikely, officials said, the safeguard would prevent a school from being penalized because of a quirk in retaining the same percentage of schools with an A, B, C, D and F.

“You might even call this a hold harmless,” White said.