Panel recommends new grade rules

A key state advisory panel voted 12-0 on Monday to revamp a controversial policy that awards bonus points for low-achieving students in figuring grades for public schools.

The rule sparked controversy and questions in the fall when the state Department of Education announced that 28 percent of schools were rated D and F, down from 36 percent in the previous year.

Less clear was the fact that, under a new state policy, schools and school districts were awarded points on key tests for students showing significant gains even if their scores remained below grade level.

Roughly one out of five schools statewide earned the maximum number of bonus points — 10 — on a 150-point scale.

State Superintendent of Education John White told the School Accountability Commission that the policy is aimed at ensuring attention for struggling students as the state increases academic standards.

“That is all this is meant to do,” White said.

But Stephanie Desselle, a member of the commission, said that while the tweaks approved Monday are a good idea, the policy has too many unanswered questions and “muddies” the snapshot of public schools for parents and other taxpayers.

Desselle, who follows public schools issues for the Council for a Better Louisiana, also said 10 points can have a major effect on what grade a school is assigned.

“Ten points to a school at 58.5 is exceedingly significant,” Desselle said.

State officials announced the new policy last year as a way to improve focus on about 230,000 public school students about a third of the total who perform below grade level.

It is aimed at students who are struggling in math or English.

Those who showed better than expected test improvements, even if the results were still low, generated points for their school.

Under the rules, the bonus points applied to schools where at least 30 percent of students made “significant” gains.

Under the change endorsed Monday, schools would have to have more than 50 percent of eligible students exceed their expected scores.

Under existing rules, a minimum number of students have to show subpar scores in math, English or both in both the prior and current school year.

Under the change, those students would only have to show subpar scores in the previous year.

Ascension Parish School Superintendent Patrice Pujol, a member of the commission, backed the concept behind the extra points, which she said schools have been awarded for years in various forms.

“It was behind the scenes but it was happening,” said Pujol, who is also president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents.

Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and a critic of the state’s letter-grade policy, said the proposed changes point up larger problems.

“We have a system that has to be manipulated,” Monaghan said.

The change would mean that the number of schools getting additional points in grade calculations would rise from 628 to 791, according to figures compiled by the state Department of Education.

The agency said 104 of the state’s roughly 1,300 public schools would increase a letter grade under the new policy and 57 would drop a grade.

Schools that earned bonus points last year would, on average, drop from 7.8 to 6.5 additional points.

The plan faces review by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.